Wayne Brown is a well-known Trinidadian writer and columnist who now lives in Jamaica. This is the sixteenth in his new series on the Obama era.

Obama threading  the needle

Six weeks after his historic inauguration, both the tenor and the thrust of Barack Obama’s administration are becoming clear. Obama, it seems, is above all a pragmatist; and when that outlook — one of ‘Can I?’ rather than ‘Yes, we can’ — is vigilantly applied to the already oxymoronic mix of a hugely ambitious agenda and uncommon political caution, the outcome is likely to keep Obama-watchers perennially unsure of what’s to come.
These are Wagnerian times. After eight years of the previous administration’s criminal activities, ideological venality and spectacular incompetence, much of the world — including the global economy — lies in ruins.

Last Sunday in the NYT, Thomas Friedman quoted two Cassandras to that effect.
“As we look at 2009, on every issue, with the single exception of Iraq, everything is worse,” said Ian Bremmer. “Pakistan is worse. Afghanistan is worse. Russia is worse. Emerging markets are worse. Everything big out there is worse, and some will be made even worse by the economic crisis. There is a geopolitical storm coming, and it is not priced into the market yet.”

And David Rothkopf, author of a history of the National Security Council: “As the effects of the economic crisis spread and viable states become weak states, and weak states become failed states, it is going to produce a series of geopolitical brush fires, if we are lucky, and real conflagrations, if we are not. They will each demand the attention and resources of a government that already has limited bandwidth and an empty piggybank.”

Yet, while the odds still have to favour a catastrophic denouement on any of many fronts, both the President’s ambitious agenda and the unflappable, low-keyed confidence with which he has been promoting it have been leading many people to dare to hope he can pull it off, after all.
The NYT’s Maureen Dowd acidly sketched the difference between Bush and Obama.

“The contrasting images were pretty astounding,” she wrote. “W. and Laura back in Texas, puttering around the new hood, borrowing chairs from the Secret Service next door to have a big dinner party, oblivious to the shrieks of pain, anger, shock and fear around the country, while Barack Obama engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to push the huge boulder of grief left behind by Bush up the hill. What can the disavowed dauphin possibly be thinking as Professor Obama strides up to the blackboard to erase everything W stood for, while giving us crisp lectures about how we must get more educated, more equitable, more realistic, more responsible and more reasonable?”

Obama won on November 4 with just 52 per cent of the popular vote (granted, the biggest presidential margin of victory by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson). Since then, however, his popularity has risen; his favourability rating now stands at a relatively carefree 60 per cent; and Americans’ confidence in his ability to solve their country’s problems has soared above even that and currently stands at a (frankly, irrational) 74 per cent.

By contrast, Republican support has collapsed, from the 47 per cent of the popular vote won by McCain four months ago to an historic low of 26 per cent; hardly surprising, given the gleeful infantilism with which Republicans in Congress, in a time of economic disaster, have responded to Obama’s agenda and bipartisan overtures in accordance with Nancy Reagan’s glib “Just say no”; and given the transparent thinking behind their rush to promote non-white faces to high visibility in their adamantly white party. Michael Steele, who celebrated his appointment as Chairman of the RNC with the hilarious promise to bring “bling” to his party’s plutocratic agenda, and Bobby Jindal, the front-runner to be the Republicans’ presidential candidate in 2012 — Jindal, who came across, quite frankly, as a little boy in his squeaky ‘rebuttal’ of Obama’s budget speech, wherein he smugly affirmed exactly those Bush policies the American electorate had resoundingly rejected four months ago — may both be comically lightweight. But even funnier has been the Republican ‘thinking’ that has lifted them up: ‘The Democrats picked a black man and he won. We must put some black faces out there!’
Yeah, right.
Every administration is ultimately an expression of the character of the president. Obama, to repeat, is a pragmatist — as he said last week in relation to Iraq, “We will not let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals” — and the result is that he’s begun walking a perilously thin line, between keeping his supporters sufficiently satisfied to retain their loyalty and disappointing them enough to disenchant them.

Thus, Obama promptly announced the probable closure of Guantanamo — only, not yet; and only ‘probably,’ not definitely.
He unequivocally renounced torture — then mysteriously refused to eschew the Bush administration’s practice of ‘extraordinary rendition,’ whereby terror suspects were transferred to third countries to be tortured.

Last week, Obama reaffirmed his campaign pledge to pull American troops out of Iraq — only, in 18 months, not 16, as he’d promised; and only “combat brigades,” leaving up to a whopping 50,000 troops in Iraq (doing what?) for a further two years.
His stimulus package bowed to the Republican fetish for tax cuts, to the tune of 40 per cent of the whole, never mind that most economists agreed that tax cuts would only stimulate saving, not the desired spending.

And yet his budget was unabashedly liberal (“swinging for the fences,” as one Republican grudgingly typified it), raising taxes on the wealthy to cut taxes for the middle class, and envisaging major, government-directed course changes in the spheres of energy, education and health care.

In promoting it, Obama is clearly counting on populist outrage against the fat cats in business and finance, those whose unregulated greed brought on the current recession now threatening to graduate to a depression (and who’ve already begun orchestrating massive resistance to the his reformist agenda: witness the scowling ‘thumbs-down’ of the steadily-plummeting DOW).  But there, once again, Obama will have to vanquish some stubborn old American bogeys: ‘Big Government,’ ‘Wasteful Spending,’ ‘Raising Taxes’ (yes, even on the wealthy), and the like.

In return, the Republicans wasted no time in characterizing the new President as everything from a European-style socialist to a commie. For the time being, Obama can safely ignore them; as Frank Rich put it, “he needn’t worry about the Republicans. They’re committing suicide.” But, that aside, Obama’s pragmatism commits him to a perennial high-wire act — one with no safety net, for either him or us.