Election Day Approaches
Seldom have so many been so focused on so few or, to be exact, just two. It appears as if the entire world might be focused on what millions of Americans will decide next week: who should be the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in 2009. Most Europeans have a preference even if their votes don't count on November 4. Obama is their choice, even though the consequences of an Obama presidency may not be quite clear to them. It may also not be clear to most Americans given the enormous burdens the next president and the country will face. But at the end of the Election Day, Americans will have voted on the basis of what they hope will be the best candidate. And then we have to see how the candidate transforms into a president.
Politics is about choices and the next president will be confronted with making many choices, some of which will have difficult, even painful consequences. Having lived beyond our means for so long, correcting bad habits will take time before we see signs of improvement.
Inspire and Require
As in the past, the next president is going to need to inspire as well as require. He needs to inspire with a vision of what we can achieve. He has to require that we change our thinking and behavior in order to have the ability to achieve. Whether it is about energy and climate, research and education, health care and social security, immigration and our national financial infrastructure, the president will need to inspire us with the leadership that comes with the opportunity of occupying the Oval Office. And then, as a leader, he is going to need to require that Americans respond. The questions are: will they, and how?
One of the toughest presidential jobs is inspiring and requiring cooperation in the Congress. The president will need to forge alliances with and at times confront the legislative branch in the effort to get a grip on the major problems we face. Even if Obama plants the Democratic Party flag of control over the White House while that same majority rules the Congress, he will require both the authority and responsibility of a president to keep the focus on implementing real solutions to threats at home and abroad and getting responsible action from the Congress to pay for it. That is not a self-evident expectation when many voices in Congress are more articulate about their own special interests than those of national concern. There will be as always a test of wills played out up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. But when that test plays out within a political party, it can be as confrontational as one across party lines. Ask Jimmy Carter, who only lasted one term in the White House with a Democratic majority in the Congress.
This is the first time in forty years the presidency will be passed on from one president to another in time of war, especially now with no clear picture of how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will end. Add to that the financial meltdown which will accompany the new president's initial years in office and there is an inheritance of an agenda of intimidating dimensions being transferred to the forty-fourth president. The task of inspiring and requiring a somber and nervous nation to deal with all of these problems is going to be monumental.
Cooperation on a Global Scale
With a nervous world also watching what is decided on November 4 in the U.S., the new president will need to inspire other nations as well as his own to seek out shared solutions and resources in order to meet common threats. And to the degree he can leverage both persuasion and power, he will also want to require concerted and cooperative responses to global problems. The world cannot afford a U.S. that is stuck in an inward-looking mood. There is too much at stake and too much of a role which the U.S. has to play.
The choices made by the U.S. in the recent past - be it in the Middle East, the Gulf, responding to climate change, or the fiscal crisis- have weakened both the persuasive power and influence of the U.S. on other regions of the world, but there continues to be no real alternative to an American engagement whether it be with our partners or competitors.
A president faces serious problems if there is a perception that engagement with the global agenda comes at a cost for domestic needs. There has been too much reference to such a zero-sum approach by both candidates during the campaign. The president has to strike the right balance between attending to our domestic challenges and our foreign policy priorities. But both need to be met with the support of the country.
During his first two years in office, the president will need to show his ability to deal with foreign policy threats and challenges. We know those we currently see and the urgency of these challenges will not provide much time to debate actions. The need for proactive policies will be urgent. We have to keep focused on maintaining stability in Afghanistan, Iraq, keeping the window open for negotiations in the Middle East, managing relations with an uncertain Russia, keeping the proliferation of nuclear weapons under control (with the most immediate threat being in Iranian hands), and forging an energy policy which reduces an addiction to oil as well as the damage carbon is doing to the planet.
The prescriptions offered by Washington need to be considered immediately by our partners in Europe and Asia. But it will be equally important for our partners to come forward with their own proposals and inject them into a strategic plan with the U.S. They will expect to have the U.S. as an engaged and also a listening leader in working on them. In turn, the U.S. should be looking and listening to the options offered.
Opportunities and Pitfalls - Home and Abroad
The next president faces opportunities and pitfalls at home and abroad. He can offer goals and benchmarks. Americans will need to decide whether they will identify with them and act in accord. Many of the issues facing the next president are not new. Some of them have been looming for a long time, be it our mounting debts, domestic infrastructural decay, a national oil addiction, or regenerating our educational resources for the future. Yet it seems like they are colliding together at the same time. That is when a larger picture is needed if we are going to do more than cope.
There are moments when a president can call on a country to tackle such a daunting agenda. We had one of those moments seven years ago in September. We did not use that opportunity well. Now we may have another opportunity of a different kind.
The vulnerability of a nation and its future has been on display for the past few weeks as we watched the markets implode and our savings evaporate. It has focused the minds of many on what we need to do in order to reduce that vulnerability and get more control of our futures. The president must articulate the message with urgency and clarity.
The next president will also face opportunities and pitfalls abroad. Again, he can offer goals and benchmarks to inspire other countries to forge solutions to global problems, but his ability to require cooperation is more limited on the global stage. He cannot simply command a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iranian nuclear ambitions, Afghanistan's or Iraq's instability, Russian intimidation of Georgia, or the genocide in Darfur. We have also seen the prices paid when it is believed that he can.
What he can do is lead by engagement, requiring the U.S. to ask of our friends and partners what they think, but also what they are willing to do, and if they have a better solution to propose. He can also lead by asking others to act when action is needed after discussion and debate.
A New Map
AICGS has considered those issues and areas where that kind of dialogue can occur between Washington and Berlin. But it is a dialogue that needs to unfold with many countries, many of whom are thinking about how a new phase of relations with Washington under a new president will unfold.
Hopefully the opportunities in that time will outnumber the pitfalls. That will depend on how well both ends of the dialogue have really thought about what is at stake and what needs to be done. To accomplish that, we can all help each other to inspire and require the best we can do.