Thursday, January 15, 2009

This isn't 1993

Barack Obama has outlined an ambitious agenda for his first "one hundred days," the initial months of a presidency when new presidents traditionally exploit their mandate, their "honeymoon," and the political difficulty of attacking a president who still enjoys the hopeful expectations of the electorate. This agenda includes closing Guantanamo, drawing down the troops in Iraq, and moving on a much larger bailout of the economy than anyone has ever seen. This week, perhaps because it was felt that something ought to be presented for the gay community to atone for the Rick Warren flap, we hear that Obama intends to rescind the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gay military personnel.

This item invites reminiscence of the early days of the Clinton administration. Clinton tried to establish a gay-tolerant military. He also (with the prominent participation of his wife) tried to move forward on an ambitious reform of health insurance and health care. Notoriously Clinton met with failure on these and other early initiatives. There was even a Time magazine cover of the "incredible shrinking president." Some speculated that he would be altogether unable to govern. Today, mindful of this history, some are cautioning that Obama should go slow. I think that Obama is nothing if not measured, but more importantly there are huge differences in the political circumstances of 2009 as compared to 1993.

Bill Clinton won the election of 1992 by a plurality, splitting the vote with Bush and Perot. He managed to win the Democratic nomination that year largely because more senior Democratic politicians (Mario Cuomo for example) made the calculation that the incumbent Republican would win reelection after Reagan's domination of the previous three elections. Three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, public confidence in Republican foreign policy was high: "triumphalism" was the neologism of the day. Clinton and his ally Al Gore were Democratic Party upstarts. Their strategy of staking out centrist positions squeaked them into office but did not endear them to the Democratic establishment or to the liberal electorate. They were on their own.

Today the situation is entirely different. The incoming Democrat has been elected with one of the biggest electoral vote margins of modern times. The outgoing administration leaves in public disgrace, with the Republican Party bleeding voters. Both the economy and US foreign policy are widely perceived as in critical condition. Obama has packed his incoming administration with the most powerful Democratic politicians in the country and with officials with deep connections to the Congress. There is token resistance to a stimulus package from some right-wing backbenchers, otherwise everyone wants to get in on the action. Resisting Obama is, for the moment at least, politically unwise in the extreme.

Under these circumstances Obama, if he continues to be as adroit as he has been so far, ought to have little trouble with, for example, closing Guantanamo and reaffirming our commitment to the Geneva Conventions. I'd say he can still pile a little more onto his plate. Here's my suggestion: unilaterally normalize relations with Cuba, rescind the blockade, rescind Helms-Burton. If Obama were to do that, Cuba would be completely transformed within twelve months: no more Cuban Communist Party, no more loss of business to the Canadians, Spanish, Japanese and Argentines that would more sensibly be handled by US farmers and business. I don't see how anyone could stop this.

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