The conventional view is that Barack Obama’s presidency is going to struggle with the contradiction between the huge expectations invested in him and the glum realities of office. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.
For one thing, it’s important to see that Obama is ramping up these expectations. From the start of his presidential campaign he has presented himself as following in Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps. In his response to the economic crisis, the comparisons have been with Franklin Roosevelt.
Anyone who sets himself alongside the two greatest US presidents isn’t exactly aiming low. But Obama has simultaneously tried to buy himself some time from the voters.
The New York Times reported last Saturday on its latest poll: “Obama has achieved some success with his effort to gird Americans for a slow economic recovery and difficult years ahead after a campaign that generated striking enthusiasm and high hopes for change.
“Most Americans said they did not expect real progress in improving the economy, reforming the healthcare system or ending the war in Iraq for at least two years. The poll found that two thirds of respondents think the recession will last two years or longer.”
The real contradiction that is likely to dominate the Obama presidency is that between his “Yes We Can” message and his “No We Can’t” cabinet. Obama’s appointments have been depressingly bad, drawn from the cadre of neoliberal imperialism.
It would be silly to portray Obama as just a prisoner of this grisly bunch. After all, he chose them as part of a carefully crafted strategy of repositioning himself in the centre of US politics.
According to the New York Times, “Mr Obama’s effort to use this interregnum between election day and inauguration day to present himself as a political moderate appears to be working.
“In this latest poll, 40 percent described the president-elect’s ideology as liberal, a 17 point drop from just before the election.”
The problem with this strategy is that Obama is confronting an economic and financial crisis that has already burst out of the narrow confines of neoliberalism.
A couple of weeks ago he unveiled an economic recovery plan designed to stimulate the US economy. It offers a package of tax cuts and spending increases that amounts to getting on for $1 trillion.
This was immediately denounced by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times – until recently one of the high priests of free market economics – as “inadequate and incomplete”.
The difficulties Obama confronts “are much deeper and more global” than can be solved by a mere stimulus to the US economy, Wolf added.
Above all, US capitalism is carrying a huge burden of bad debt. Banks have to cut back on lending, firms on borrowing and investing.
But the combined effect of these actions is to cause the economy to shrink still more, further weakening banks and firms, compelling them to rein in and cut back even more, and so on, in a vicious downward spiral.
If this prognosis is correct, then Obama may be forced to go much further economically than he or his cabinet might like.
Where he is less likely to surprise us is in precisely the area where expectations outside the US have been highest – foreign policy.
Talking to Iran and even, according to some leaks, to Hamas doesn’t amount to revolutionary change. It’s a variation in the complicated mix of military intervention, support for Israel and alliance with the conservative Arab regimes that has dominated US policy in the Middle East for the past 20 years.
Above all, don’t expect Obama to be the representative of a meeker, weaker US. The relative power of the US may actually grow for the next few years, if its rivals are hit harder by the economic crisis.
And, by the very fact of Obama’s occupation of the Oval Office, the US’s moral power will be enhanced. Expect him to use it.