America Will Be Just Fine
The late Tim Russell of NBC’s Meet The Press would have it best, “What a country!” The United States of America, the most powerful nation on earth, the world’s most enviable democracy and strongest economy, has just elected her first Black president, Senator Barack Obama. The historicity of this event cannot be underestimated, as it happened at a time when the country is confronted with a crisis of such magnitude that the tenets of its economic system are threatened; that the ever optimistic nature of the American psyche is challenged. It happened at a time when the entire world yearns once more for our leadership.
Precisely at this precarious time, America tapped her immense reservoir of talent, anointed the freshman senator from Illinois and handed him the tiller with the solemn mission of charting a new itinerary for her still young republic, restoring order into the economy, and taking her citizenry to the confines of human possibilities in search of a better tomorrow. In electing Barack Obama 44th President of the Republic, America has proven again that she has the fortitude to experiment with novel approaches; that she has the sagacity to pick leaders with the temperament and wisdom to guide her out of her moments of darkness onto the luminous paths of decency, progress and opportunity for all. True to her vaunted pragmatism, America reverted to her endeared tradition of constant reengineering, perpetual renewal, and unceasing creativity. She understood that such challenging times called for a leader endowed with intellectual depth and curiosity, an inquisitive mind and enterprising spirit to take on the frontiers that loom on her socio-economic horizon and transform them into windows of opportunity.
America is no stranger to challenges of this sort. Dared by History many a time, she has yet to miss a “rendezvous with destiny”. At a time when the specter of secession and schism threatened to rip apart the fabric of the nation, she entrusted the fate of her young democracy to Abraham Lincoln. She turned to this illustrious son of Illinois to uproot the seeds of division, unify the nation behind a new sense of purpose, rally the progressive forces around an economic vision that foretold the benefits of industrialization and did away with the decrepit and retrograde structures of a southern economy that reposed on slavery along with the abject conditions associated with it, set the country on a moral course consistent with the preamble of the Declaration of Independence affirmation that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln set America on a course that modernized her economy and cleared a pathway to world economic dominance.
Likewise, when the Great Depression of 1929 threatened to sap the foundations of her welfare, sent shock waves throughout her economic structures, came close to unraveling her social gains, America turned to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Immense was the task at hand, and daunting the challenges. Reaching into her reservoir, she picked this son of privilege and laid in his hand her destiny. Roosevelt understood that bold decisions had to be made to reverse the trends of steady disintegration that marred the socio-economic tissues of the nation. He veered from the laisser-faire economic tradition that ruled the marketplace; a tradition that sprang from the economic theory championed by Adam Smith, the eighteenth century Scottish economist, who advocated unfettered freedom to the market forces, the so-called “invisible hand” supposedly more apt at achieving optimal allocation of resources and at correcting the cyclical inequities that might result from the interactions of the economic forces—a dogma in large part responsible for the economic cataclysm of 1929. Inspired by the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes, the twentieth century British economist, Roosevelt revolutionized the narrative about the government’s role in the economy, carved a place for it to stimulate demand, invest in public works and infrastructure projects, and hold in check the market forces by instituting appropriate regulatory bodies. This new economic conceptual framework and attitudinal change brought in an era of prosperity that lasted decades, and new institutional structures upon which we continue to depend, namely Social Security, among others.
A generation or so later, in the midst of the Cold War, when World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency reached its term, America defied conventional wisdom and picked a young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy over the more experienced Richard Nixon, then Eisenhower’s vice-president. America turned down the comfort of safe choice in Nixon and embraced the challenges of the new enterprising spirit Kennedy’s youthful exuberance and reassuring demeanor projected. For, these were not ordinary times when one would be content to just play it safe. On the domestic scene, the economy was showing anemic symptoms that called for governmental action. On the international scene, there was the increasing East-West polarization, fueled by the cold war and its corollary—heavy militarization leading to a vertiginous arms race with the Soviet Union and a threat to world peace. This was further complicated by turbulence in the developing world, heightened by the rise of nationalistic or non-aligned movements which basically tilted toward the socialist model, thanks to the Kremlin’s aggressive agenda toward the less developed countries. Through a mix of assertive diplomacy and prudent militarism, Kennedy confronted head-on the Kremlin’s bellicose attitude in Europe, particularly in Berlin, and reasserted the American influence in the Third World, through massive aid and the creation of the Peace Corps, among others. Widely popular at home and abroad, Kennedy presided over an era of prosperity and took the American people on a scientific and technological journey, which would eventually lead to extraterrestrial frontiers and set America’s preeminence in space.
Yet again, America is at a cross-roads, where she is invited to another rendezvous with destiny. The fundamental question is whether the much-traveled, safe paths of status quo, rehashed and obsolete ways and clichés of yesteryears will fend off the barrage of challenges facing her from all fronts. Our resources are spreading thin. Our economic supremacy is being eroded, our trade deficit with the fast-growing emerging economies is steadily increasing and the latter are quickly becoming our creditors on world financial markets. At home, the economic malaise that had been brewing for a decade finally bubbled up and is fast becoming a Tsunami wreaking havoc all across the landscape, equal in proportion to the 1929 Depression–from a weak dollar, to record job loss, record budget deficits, record home foreclosures, record stock market losses, record gas prices, record healthcare costs. Much at fault for such dire circumstances was the resurgence of Adam Smith’s laisser-faire, coupled with Milton Friedman’s all-out assault on big government, prompting a shift from the Keynesian model to supply-side economics, the tenets of which reposed on incentivizing businesses and the rich through tax cuts (the Republicans’ favorite hymn), hoping the ensuing investments would “trickle-down” to benefit all. According to Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner in economics and professor at the University of Chicago, the markets reigned supreme and must be allowed to self-regulate; the government’s role in the economy should be minimal. This revisited approach, under Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, led to a wave of privatizations, deregulations, outsourcing of government functions, bolstered a mode of thinking that made it a heresy to even think of reigning in the market forces, no matter how wild they were running. Politically, a new breed of politicians, spearheaded by Lee Atwater, specialized in demonizing opponents, negative campaigning where issues took a back seat to frivolous personality differences and mudslinging, records were distorted and vilified; where the word “liberal” became anathema or a plague to run from; where the political scene became deviously polarized between liberalism and conservatism, whose adherents successfully managed to cow the other side and associate them with all the ills of the country from market woes to family values. Militarily, we are waging two wars, one of which is a quagmire and siphoning funds out of treasury at the rate of twelve billion dollars a month. Our troops are being spread thin, through multiple redeployments, while there is no end in sight to stop the hemorrhage. The single-mindedness of our security concerns leaves us only tactical choices with no viable overall strategy to respond to tomorrow’s sophisticated threats. Diplomatically, we became an America whose image has been tarnished by reckless, senseless self-righteousness and unilateralism with a flagrant disregard for our international partners, breaching with our most sacred principles, engaging in behaviors worthy of petty dictators. We are an America who abdicated our moral principles and trampled the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Socially, the divide has never been wider. The top 5% of the population has never been better off, with CEO’s making as much as a thousand times the average salary of their factory floor. Thanks to layoffs, attrition, outsourcing, process reengineering, product downsizing, corporate CEO’s managed to increase profits to record levels, and receive incentive compensation in many instances superior to their base salary. And, all the while, some of us make illegal immigrants into scapegoats for the tight job market, oblivious that tax incentives for offshore business migrations are more to blame for the disappearing jobs. Our inner cities are ravaged by rampant poverty, family dysfunction, low-performing schools, deteriorating healthcare—all of which create a climate where youths, mostly African American, are exposed to, or victimized by, violence, diseases and lawlessness, and lack the necessary training to face tomorrow’s job market.
That is the tableau that awaits Obama. When some two years ago he embarked on this journey, he launched a laconic, monosyllabic message which resonated with America’s core value system, celebrated her ever rejuvenating capacity, encapsulated the enterprising virtue and vibrancy of her democracy, her resoluteness to conquer fear-mongering, her readiness to take on new challenges: CHANGE. This message swept through the East Coast, cut through the mountains of Appalachia, ran through the mills of the Midwest, traversed the slopes of Colorado, and ended up basking in the Californian and Hawaiian suns. Throughout that journey, that message intersected America’s psyche. For, America just can’t function with decaying structures. Her soul is antithetical to sclerosis and paralysis. Truly, the change message had always been part of the American political lexicon. More properly put, it had been used and abused by venal and opportunistic politicians to the point that voters had grown skeptical and even cynical about real prospects of change. That it took an Obama to catalyze the dormant energies of the American electorate and entice its participation in the political process is no accident, for he is the avatar of Change. America has a lot to be proud of! What generations of politicians had failed to accomplish–connect with America’s consciousness, mobilize shoulder to shoulder the perennial disenfranchised along with the sons and daughters of privilege, revolutionize the way we conduct our politics, give America a new reason to believe in the power of her democracy—was realized by a freshman Senator who two decades ago was an unknown community organizer, a title much derided by the Republicans during their convention in Saint Paul, MN. In retrospect, their derision spoke volume about their being out-of-touch with the American story, because communities are the backbone of America. Their derision is reminiscent of a scene of Frank Capra’s classic movie–It’s a Wonderful Life–where the novice George Bailey confronted the all-powerful mogul financier Potter over his attempt to take over Bedford Falls’ savings-and-loans, in the process deriding the ordinary folk in the community as “lazy… sitting on (their) brain”—to which George retorted (I am paraphrasing), “These decent people do most of the living, and buying and dying in this community. What’s wrong with putting a roof over their heads and not having them crawl to you?” The idealist George Bailey, community organizer, chose to live in that “crummy little town” and helped those folk be “better citizens”. Barack Obama picked up on George’s legacy and took it to another level.
America should be proud of the campaign run by this former community organizer. The enthusiasm generated by Obama’s candidacy, signified by the waves of voter registration, campaign volunteerism, record small donations, is the hallmark of a new dimension of the American democracy, which perhaps neither Jefferson (who was leery of “tyranny by the majority”) nor Jackson (who expanded voting rights to “all white males”) had envisioned or at least advocated. It is so ironic that this popular effervescence was catalyzed by the son of a couple who were not the immediate or intended beneficiaries of the precepts of the Constitution: a black man and a white woman, none of whom could in 1776 relate to the self-evident truth that “all men (were) created equal”—as a black person was not considered an integral part of mankind and a white woman was equated to a minor, deprived of some of the basic rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution. It is, as it were, a revenge of History that this unlikely hero could move the country one step closer to its ideal of a “more perfect Union”, galvanized the energies of the electorate, broke the apathy fed by a sense of helplessness, irrelevance, and inability to change the course of our politics, rekindled the flame of civism, and offered an alternative to big money influence. That, moreover, Obama never departed from the decency he injected into political campaigning; that Americans from all walks of life, from the plebeians of the steel factories to the patricians of Beverly Hills, flocked to his rallies in search of an inspiration, a new raison d’être or another reason to participate in this grandiose endeavor; that in a solid majority Americans side by side defied all taboos, materialized the “dream” of Martin Luther King, effected the “rainbow coalition” Jesse Jackson aspired to, and put the destiny of the nation in Obama’s African American hands is a testimony to the vibrancy of our democracy.
If President-elect Obama governs as he campaigns, America will be fine. If he displays the same qualities that assured his victory–focus, discipline, poise, judgment, composure, intelligence, and efficiency–we will surmount the difficult years ahead. At this juncture, America needs a strategist with intellectual integrity and fortitude to break with the narrow-mindedness, servile mentality, and simplistic rationalizations that prevailed throughout the previous administration. If his brilliant campaign provides any insight into his approach to governance, it is that an Obama Administration will in essence be an eclectic one, a cauldron where decision-making proceeds from rational discourse and healthy exchange of ideas rather than gut-feeling. Surrounding himself with the best and brightest from various even divergent persuasions, Obama is confident he has the transformative power to achieve what Hegel calls synthesis, the common ground resulting from the clash of ideas (thesis vs. antithesis). He must have read the Greek philosophers and been apprised of their art of reasoning (dialectics), the essence of which is that the clash of ideas, when properly orchestrated, inevitably promotes new modes of thinking enriched by fusing the best arguments of the opposing sides. He must have read Marx and Engels, who further pursued the notion of dialectical relationship, the idea of interdependence and mutual influence. This is the breadth of knowledge Obama will bring to the presidency–the wisdom the Greeks believed every holder of positions of power was to possess in order to govern wisely and make informed decisions. Eclecticism, synthesis, syncretism, dialectics may all be fancy words; but they all simply translate into something the American electorate was craving for–consensus, and the American psyche is known for–pragmatism.
In the spirit of pragmatism, Obama will draw from the achievements of our most successful administrations. He will transcend party identification to marry his vision for a just, equitable, and prosperous America with that of Republican Abraham Lincoln, who assaulted the bastion of inequality along with the decrepit economic structures that conditioned such inequality to move America on a new course that asserted her ascendency as an economic power in her own right. He will partner with Republican Theodore Roosevelt’s environmental activism to stave off any attempts to damage our ecosystem, his economic activism against unbridled corporate greed and monopoly to institute sensible regulations into the marketplace, and his progressive tax policies. Obama will summon Franklin Roosevelt’s indomitable optimistic spirit displayed in the years that followed the Great Depression and bold inoculation of government vaccine to cure the economic woes of the nation. He will echo Roosevelt’s stance on government responsibility to jump-start the economy and stimulate demand through massive investments in infrastructure projects. If Roosevelt is credited for implementing Social Security, Obama will be known for shoring it up. If Roosevelt put the middle-class on sure footing in America, Obama will be the one who rescues it from the quick sands it finds itself in and ensures its perennial vitality through his economic restructuring plan and healthcare reform. He will expand on Eisenhower’s concept of connectedness through the Interstate Highway System to connect the people of America via the Internet, so they enjoy their commonalities, appreciate their interdependence, and share access to national resources. From Kennedy he learns that no frontiers are too distant, too treacherous to America’s purview once the challenge is put to her by a purposeful and trustworthy leader. As Kennedy had vowed to land a man on the moon within a decade, Obama will engage in a like crusade to usher in the era of alternate sources of energy and green economy, and free America from the tentacles of foreign oil. He espouses Lyndon Johnson’s quest for greater social justice and vision of Great Society that gave birth to the Civil Rights Act, and will expound on Johnson’s staple healthcare programs, Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for the poor). From Carter, he learns the value of a foreign policy intent on promoting peoples’ rights and human dignity. Like Reagan, he understands the power of the teleprompter as an ally in communicating and connecting with the American people, and the virtue of staying on message. Like Clinton, he understands that the key to success is to govern at the center.
All along his campaign and since elected, Obama has given glimpses of his eclecticism. His strength lies in that he combines the intellect of an Ivy League scholar with the instincts of a community organizer in some forsaken sections of Chicago’s South Side–two aspects most of us would deem irreconcilable or mutually exclusive. Having been on both sides of the divide, he is cognizant of their respective expectations and able bridge the gap between them. Such as a bee that uses its prodigious transformative power to create an original, rich, potent and immensely palatable substance from myriad ingredients gleaned from the surrounding flowers, Obama will likewise take advantage of the most salient achievements of past administrations, engage his advisors in healthy debates of ideas and, in the end, morph it all into a new scheme or paradigm for political and socio-economic action, whereby America ends up enlarged and enriched.
Lastly, some two years ago, when Barack Obama was contemplating his bid for the presidency, I drew a parallel between him and Michael Jordan. In my opinion, Jordan’s defining moment was his shot in the waning seconds of the 1982 NCAA championship match between Georgetown and North Carolina who was losing by one point. A freshman on a North Carolina team that included all-American James Worthy (a senior) and Sam Perkins, Jordan was not supposed to take that shot. The “correct” thing to do was to yield to his seniors, but he created an opening for himself in the corner and called for the ball. The disbelief was on everyone’s face, as he confidently elevated and launched the ball, which swooped down the net and led to the championship for Dean Smith and the Tar Heels. More than the shot, the guts and audacity he displayed that night augured a destiny at the very top of the basketball pyramid. Likewise, Obama took the shot he “was not” supposed to take as a freshman senator, i.e. run in a field of well-known, experienced lawmakers, against the well-maintained Clinton machine. He was supposed to yield to the veterans of the Democratic Party, because supposedly he was too inexperienced and, therefore, stood no chance against the Republicans and their Machiavellian tactics. But what was at stake was too big to silence his guts. He managed to clear all obstacles, freed himself from his opponents and creating an opening for a jumper. His shot swooped down the net on November 4, 2008. The audacity, confidence and self-assurance he displayed all the way through that last shot are nothing short of spectacular and destine him to the top layer of our successful presidencies.
If Jordan’s trajectory is any blueprint for what lies ahead with Obama, America, you’ll be just fine!