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What Kind Of President Will He Be?

Updated On: Nov 03, 2008

High hopes but a hard start for an Obama presidency

THERE is a great need for leadership in our turbulent world. Many hope that the new American President can help provide it.

If Mr Barack Obama wins the presidency, as polls now predict, he will ride on a wave of optimism and hope. This is generated by his message of change, his personal charisma and the history-making symbolism of an African-American in the White House.

Yet, that high wave of hope may hit a wall and leave Mr Obama’s presidency and the country wallowing in choppy waters. There are difficult and quite immediate problems ahead that promise a hard start.

The well-known American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, writing in Foreign Affairs, says that the President will face a more difficult opening day set of problems than any predecessor has faced since at least the end of World War II. This estimate was given even before the financial turmoil.

A recession is upon the United States. Candidate Obama gained momentum by promising to bring back growth and protect American jobs. But most predict a downturn for one or two years, and President Obama will struggle to deliver on those promises, perhaps even by mid-term. Problems may deepen and patience among citizens will be in short supply.

President Obama will need to restore confidence to the US and must put an economic team of the highest credibility into place, quickly. To help re-energise the world economy, a major step would be for freer trade, reviving the stalled Doha round and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), which Singapore will chair next year.

Yet, critics say that he and the Democrats, who dominate Congress, are protectionists who will isolate America and end up hurting the world economy. President Obama must be persuaded that America’s economy is inextricably linked to the world. He will need to show political courage and skill to pursue growth and trade, while keeping his support base on side.

A connected challenge will be climate change and energy. Even as President George W Bush was in denial, the public, companies and many states clamoured for America to respond to the existential threat of climate change. Both candidates promise steps forward, but Mr Obama has the more detailed plan to introduce permits to limit the amount of carbon that companies can emit.

Expectations both nationally and internationally are that President Obama will bring the US on board the Kyoto Protocol and join in global efforts to stem climate change. Can he live up to expectation, during an economic downturn?

Cynics say climate change action should be postponed as oil and gas are now cheaper, and introducing carbon permits will add costs that companies can’t afford.

Others retort that investing in new technologies and low carbon infrastructure can help pump up investment and help not just the environment, but also lower the American thirst for oil and increase their competitiveness.

Security will be a prime challenge. The US faces military overstretch with the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet the fear of another terrorist strike still nags.

Senator Obama opposed the war on Iraq from the start. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama said that military victory in Iraq, as Mr Bush is pushing for, is not possible and declared he would withdraw troops from open ended commitments. Yet, President Obama will find that timing will be critical.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, he will need to ensure that new political structures achieve some stability, both internally and with neighbours. Diplomacy, rather than military might, will now be the key. For this, a major rethink is needed for US policy not only with these two countries, but in dealing with allies Turkey and Pakistan, and opening dialogue with Iran, with whom Mr Bush seemed close to waging war.

In a wider context, Middle East policy will need to be addressed. Since about 2003, this has been more of a “Muddle” East policy with little coordination, and no concept beyond the all-encompassing “global war on terror”.

Relations with the rest of the world will benefit immeasurably if President Obama can begin in earnest with these difficult and pressing problems and show even modest progress.

If President Obama shows he is more multilateral and communicative, and interested in more than just global terrorism, he can be prove as inspiring in Asia and globally, as he has among many American people, and offer leadership to a turbulent world.

US ties with Asia will follow in track. Relative to other regions, there are not too many immediate problems, although there have been absences and a badgering, unilateral tone that have hurt.

Relationships across the Pacific instead bring great opportunities and medium term challenges in dealing with issues like restoring economic growth, climate change, and a possible jostle for influence and leadership among rising Asian powers.

If President Obama gets it right, the US can be part of this region, as it has since the end of WWII and fully participate in its rise, as a leader in a multipolar world.

But if there is no patience among Americans for economic recovery and domestic forces try to protect jobs by closing off America, the Obama presidency may flounder.

He and America will then miss opportunities not only in Asia, but in re-establishing American leadership just when the world needs leadership. The first months and year will bear close watching.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International
Affairs. Next year, he will be in the US as a Schwartz fellow at the
Asia Society and a Visiting Professor at Yale University.

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