Memo to Barack Obama: Don’t stop now

Dear Mr President,


Welcome to the centre of the world stage. You have, over the past couple of years, made it more than clear that you can talk the talk: your oratorical skills have been demonstrated time and again, offering the starkest possible contrast with the inarticulateness of your predecessor. The time has now come to walk the walk. There have been indications that you intend to hit the ground the running. So much the better, given the extent of the terrain you need to cover.


You couldn’t possibly be unaware, of course, of all the hopes invested in you. During the transition, your popularity among your compatriots exceeded that of any previous president-elect. To a certain extent, this is a reflection of exceptionally troubled times, as well as of the contempt inspired by the inadequate man who has occupied the presidential perch for the past eight years. I know you would be disinclined to diss George W in public. Your civility throughout the campaign was noteworthy, and it was vindicated by your triumph. One must hope, though, that you fully understand exactly where and how the Bush administration erred, otherwise it will be impossible to repair the damage.


Nor should the magnitude of the Bush administration’s follies or the extent of its criminality blind anyone to what has gone wrong over a much longer period of time. For instance, growing disparities of wealth and the crisis in healthcare are trends that have been exacerbated in the past eight years, but they have existed for considerably longer, and one of the reasons why your recruitment of so many Clinton administration veterans as aides has caused a certain amount of consternation is that in the eight years that followed the deplorable Reagan-Bush era, precious little was done to banish most of the ills associated with Ronnie the Unreasonable and George the Elder.


You are coming to your job equipped with a huge stimulus package, although some constructive critics have pointed out that it may not be large enough to make an appreciable difference. Most Americans are willing to be patient. They don’t expect you to be carrying a magic wand. As Hendrik Hertzberg pointed out in The New Yorker last week, what they "anticipate is not miracles but competence" – a quality that has lately been conspicuous by its absence from American governance. They will be hoping for far more than corporate bailouts.


It would be futile to expect significant structural changes: the capitalist context, with the profit motive as its driving force, is not about to be transcended, and it is unlikely that the next crisis can be pre-empted by overcoming the present one. But that doesn’t mean there is no room for manoeuvre. I think you realise that it is both absurd and unconscionable for the world’s richest country not to offer each and every one of its citizens access to a high level of education and healthcare. And they should be offered free to those who cannot afford them. Free enterprise is all very well, but some things are too important to be left to the market. Nor are egalitarian instincts a prerequisite for recognizing that there’s something unutterably obscene about billionaires coexisting with homelessness in "one nation under God" .


You displayed some redistributive tendencies during the campaign – to the consternation of John McCain and Joe the Plumber – but it’ll be a pleasant surprise if you go beyond a spot of tinkering at the margins. Certain other things are more easily done. The proposed closure of Guantanamo Bay is most welcome, but it must be hoped that all the civil liberties stripped away in the name of preserving freedom and the American way of life will be restored without delay. Such measures would, of course, constitute only a small step towards addressing the issue of America‘s international image, a problem that in its present form stretches back to the Truman presidency, although it was undoubtedly aggravated during the Bush years.


But then, American voters have already taken a giant leap in this respect: by electing you president, they have unleashed a veritable tidal wave of international goodwill. And it is only in the run-up to your inauguration that your domestic approval ratings matched the global figures. The hopes and aspirations of billions of non-Americans add to the burden of expectations, but they also offer you a platform for making a difference. Perhaps the most important thing you can do in this respect is to live up to your promise of ending the mentality that leads to war: an idea that has grabbed your imagination since your college days. I’m not sure how that can be achieved without dismantling the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower presciently warned against, but do your best. Even limited success would be a great service to civilization.


Your consistent opposition to the stupid war in Iraq  lent credibility to your candidacy. There isn’t a great deal of opposition to your stated determination to win the war in Afghanistan (and, if necessary, Pakistan). You need to think again. Where exactly is the US-Nato military presence leading that region? What makes the Taliban hydra-headed? Since 1945, has American military intervention anywhere in the world produced palatable consequences? The noble American whose birthday was marked on Monday described his nation, in 1967, as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. What’s changed since then? An African-American leader is taking up residence in the White House: a tremendous achievement that was inconceivable four decades ago. Yet the US remains the leading source of violence.


There’s plenty of room here, Mr President, for change we can believe in. Don’t hesitate to talk to Iran or Hamas: whether or not any good comes of it, it won’t do any harm. Ignore the Miami mafia and restore relations with Havana: you may even pick up some useful tips on universal education and healthcare. Embrace Hugo Chavez: he’ll prove to be an entertaining friend. And, for heaven’s sake, stop subsidizing Israel’s war machine. Any true wellwisher of Israel would push it towards a just and sustainable peace, instead of allowing themselves to be bullied by its venal and belligerent leaders.


You are thoughtful and open to ideas, Mr Obama. You boast excellent communication skills. Your pragmatism, hopefully, is tempered with idealism. You mustn’t give satisfaction to those who once derided you as a dangerous radical but are now claiming you won’t try anything very different from the unimaginative mountebank you are replacing. You have made history by reaching the White House. Please don’t stop there.



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