Sunday, November 16, 2008

Change We Need

So many Americans, myself included, have met the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency with jubilation, and a sense that our country has been given a chance to reclaim its position as a beacon of light in the world.

As Obama himself put it in his victory speech, this is our opportunity to show that “the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”

A tall order for sure. The current president’s misadventures notwithstanding, it’s been a while since we’ve been able to make such a claim and mean it.

From CIA complicity in the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953, on through the covert U.S. support for ruthless dictators in South and Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, and up to the more recent abandonment of widely held international conventions on torture and the treatment of POWs, America has been anything but a beacon of “unyielding hope” in years past.

One thing is certain, the new president will have his work cut out for him. On January 20 President-elect Obama will inherit two wars, a global financial catastrophe, $10 trillion in debt and the proverbial “black eye” of becoming the new agent of one of the world’s most reviled governments.

How did things get so bad?

That’s one for the history books. The real question now is how does it get better.

See, we can’t blame President Obama for what has been; but having pushed so hard and so long for the job of Chief Executive, assuring us along the way that he has a plan for change -- in fact building his entire campaign on that pledge -- it is our responsibility as Americans (especially those of us in the media) to hold him to it; to make sure that when he talks of change, the President-elect is not referring to a simple shifting around of the faces in key government positions but rather is dedicated to insuring that these faces will stand for something different than those before them. A break from the status quo, as it were.

On this point Obama is already facing scrutiny on several fronts; particularly over his choice of economic advisors.

As Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch pointedly notes: “All you had to do was look at that array of Clinton-era economic types and CEOs behind Obama at his first news conference to think: been there, done that. You could scan that gathering and not see a genuine rogue thinker in sight; no off-the-reservation figures who might represent a breath of fresh air and fresh thinking.”

One notable exception is Robert Reich -- former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, NPR commentator and author of the book “Supercapitalism” -- who blogs regularly on his progressive views on the economy. Reich is serving as an economic advisor on Obama’s transition team.

Yet it’s hard to reconcile the choice of Reich – who has called supply-side economics “wrongheaded and dangerous” with Obama’s consideration of Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary.

“From the start, Summers has been on the wrong side of Obama's supporters," writes Mark Ames, for the Nation.

Summers served as Treasury Chief during Clinton’s second term (Reich served in the first). The media has seen fit to highlight Summers’ role as a former Clinton official – which of course he was, but to call him a Clinton man serves to diminish the fact that Summers was actually a holdover from the Reagan era, having served a stint on that president’s Council of Economic Advisors before later becoming a Democrat – albeit on the right side of the party spectrum.

An admirer of Milton Friedman and former devotee of noted supply-sider Martin Feldstein, Summers was reportedly instrumental in helping commence the rollback of New Deal regulatory policy in the Reagan administration. And we all know where that took us.

In the end the attention has probably sabotaged Summers’ chances of taking over Treasury, but the mere fact that he was in consideration is troubling. On the other hand I find it encouraging that Obama supporters were willing to call the President-elect to task on the choice; after all, a democracy thrives on critical discourse – taking nothing for granted, and being willing to evolve when the old way of doing things no longer works. This was the keystone of Obama’s campaign and what he’s been asking us to do.

As a critic of the limited choices of our restrictive two-party system, I hold out hope that President Obama will break the partisan mold and use the opportunity he’s been given to lead as an individual.

Will Barack Obama be a Democratic president or a president who happens to have run as a Democrat? The answer to that will determine whether the Obama presidency will represent a true political renaissance or will simply underscore what I have maintained is wrong with a two-party system: that is, you can change the rims, get a paint job and reupholster the seats, but unless you’re willing to swap the engine, under the hood it’s still the same old car.