B.O. = G.O.?
Will President Obama’s legacy be a world where non-Americans are the true agents of change?
- Coming to terms with a world where non-Americans are the true agents of change will take a great adjustment on the part of many.
- Just how much of a go-getter is the man whose middle initial during the presidential campaign was C — as in "Change"?
- Nobody looks close enough at the difference between the heroic announcement and the downtrodden reality of what ultimately passes as legislation.
Barack Obama has impressed many Americans — and certainly the world at large — with his impressive public appearances and his precise grasp of policies across a broad swath of issues.
And yet, as the initial fascination is beginning to wear off, two questions arise: First, just how much of a go-getter is the man whose middle initial during the presidential campaign was C — as in "Change"? And second, irrespective of his mettle, is the U.S. political system set up in such a manner that it would grind him down anyway?
Take the cap-and-trade legislation, which is of pivotal importance if one looks ahead to the Copenhagen conference. Absent a convincing and courageous approach by the United States, it is highly unlikely that the major emerging powers — India and China — will sign on to a meaningful compromise on reducing emissions.
Considering the weak compromise that even the most progressive and enlightened committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by a dynamic chairman, was able to come up with, the odds for the December 2009 UN Climate Change Conference don't look too good.
The worry now is that the same pattern will repeat itself on financial markets reform — and, as appears increasingly likely, healthcare reform. Essentially, it is this: The president and his team announce glorious goals with considerable fanfare, which the rest of the world takes in with great appreciation.
It feels profoundly happy about having a highly enlightened — and modernizing — man in the White House. Many Americans feel the same way. The only problem is that nobody looks close enough at the difference between the heroic announcement and the downtrodden reality of what ultimately passes as legislation.
At some point, the world will wonder whether there isn't a rather cynical rationale to this entire process — a double bet on forgetfulness and/or leniency. Americans like their politics wrapped in proud pronouncements — a craving Obama knows how to fulfill to the hilt.
But they also realize that there is a cost attached to the implementation of forward-looking, state-of-the-art policies, on, say, health care or energy efficiency. And on that front, they actually don't mind if the Congress essentially punts — that is, agrees to something that will have a quite weak impact in terms of real change (and costs related to that).
Of course, the fact that previous administrations, including Clinton's, have often passed the buck on crucial matters means that the costs of adjustment, belatedly entered, would be that much higher.
That doesn't fit with congressional realities, which to an astounding degree end up in the selection of the policy choice that represents the lowest common denominator. Such is the power of lobbies.
The other dimension in which the Obama team's double bet on forgetfulness and/or leniency manifests itself applies abroad. Faced with the choice of holding on to an image of Barack Obama as the courageous agent of real change or realizing that his rhetoric is far better than what he delivers, they are inclined to hang on to option one.
Frustrating as this choice may be, choosing option two would be truly depressing. It would entail accepting the fact that the change the United States can willingly swallow is rather unimpressive — even if the reform efforts are advanced by what many people believe is one of the world's most gifted politicians in modern memory.
Accepting this reality would also imply that the United States would have to be recognized as a status quo power — and no longer as a modernizing force.
As regards Barack Obama, there are clear signs that he is conceiving his own role very much in the style of the title of the social activities leaders at the French-owned Club Med vacation resorts — Gentil Organisateur.
In other words, a gracious or nice organizer who is charged with making the experience of the guests (or GMs, as in Gentils Members) as pleasant and exhilarating as possible.
The fact that he manages to give such stern speeches, full of admonishment and calls to a loftier future, only adds to the allure. Why? Because his rhetoric and imagery is so powerful that it almost feels real.
In short, the speech becomes a virtual reality world where, for a moment, we tackle all the hard stuff, become truly virtuous — and then, by the powers vested in Congress and the lobbies, quickly drift back to a far less lofty reality.
Coming to terms with a world where non-Americans are the true agents of change will take a great adjustment on the part of many. And it is fair to say that it will come as a surprise to Americans and non-Americans alike.
But the odds are that, as the initial Obama fascination wears off, it will come to be the unwanted (and unexpected) hallmark of his presidency.
The only question that still needs sorting out is whether this profound change is due to Obama's ultimate gentleness, the overpowering powers of the Washington system — or a combination of the two. Stay tuned.