Published March 11, 2009
Let me tell you first, that during the recent presidential campaign I was privileged to be part of a series of discussions here at Baruch dedicated to the proposition that the political and governmental situations were so complex, contentious, confused... and critical that they required much more detailed discourse than they were receiving. I enjoyed the experience, especially because I learned so much from the discussions. But I’m afraid the issues have become even more complicated since then, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss further some of the issues with you this afternoon.
Whatever else can be said about our current situation, it seems to me much of it is new.
Many of the challenges confronting our President in these first days of his Presidency are dramatically different from those in the recent past, both in number and gravity. As a result, I believe that as the leader of the world’s greatest superpower President Obama has a unique chance to influence not only our nation’s future, but the world’s future for better or for worse.
Globalization continues to make the world more interconnected and, therefore, more interdependent. The world population is now some six billion human beings living on a planet infested with weapons of mass destruction possessed by dozens of nations, many of them hostile to one another, some already at war and others poised at the brink.
Further menacing the planet is terrorism, pandemics of various kinds, regular episodes of genocide, hunger threatening millions of human beings and the inconvenient truth of global warming. And now a badly wounded world economy, ailing in part because of a serious recession in the United States. There seldom have been more serious problems to concern us, should our nation fail in its leadership role. But, it’s also true that there seldom has been a better chance for substantial progress in our nation and globally, if we succeed. The nation is challenged by a competition between fear and hope on the grandest scale. All of this, it seems to me makes Obama’s moment in history a unique one.
One way to establish the reasonableness of our hope is simply to look back a relatively short time to the year 2000 and remind ourselves of what we had been able to do in the eight years before then: A weakened economy was developed into one that created eight million new jobs. We experienced an increase in upward mobility of the middle-class and a reduction in the number of poor people. We enjoyed eight years of economic growth, the best four years of stock market performance in history and a balanced budget. And we started the new century with a potential surplus of $5.4 trillion.
So it’s clear that a lot of what we would like to do now can be done, but it will require extensive rebuilding and building on a massive scale. Much of our infrastructure is crumbling. Canals, highways, railroads, electrical power grids and systems to produce alternate sources of energy must be built or repaired. And, beyond infrastructure, the economy itself must be rebuilt. The economy’s financial system and our capacity to create jobs are in tatters. We also have to rebuild our social services systems including, healthcare, education and pensions, all of which are deteriorating while the need for them increases.
It’s clear President Obama understands all of this well and is committed to making the effort to take on the whole array of challenges and opportunities as quickly as possible.
It will be a Herculean political achievement if he is able to guide and persuade the political forces, and the population, to do what must be done to get it all ─ or even a substantial part of it ─ accomplished while his Presidency is still vital.
In making his case, I believe Obama will not urge America to adopt a liberal ideology, nor a conservative ideology, nor even another discernible, distinct ideology. I believe if asked he would be likely to suggest that there may be a place for ideology in policymaking, but it’s not first place. First place should go to common sense and benign pragmatism with a principal reliance on facts, realities, experience and objectivity. Judging by the steps he has already taken, instead of talking about “big” government or “little” government his motto might become: “Only the government you need, but all the government you need.” That, of course, would annoy some ideologues from both sides of the political aisle, but it is basically the philosophy at work now ─ at this very moment ─ in both his bail-out and his stimulus proposals.
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Even were I to stop now in describing our national and our global challenges without mentioning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Palestine, Israel, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, genocide, and yes, Iraq, which is by no means a closed chapter or even one that we should expect to close for a long time to come, it would be plain to all of us what an awesomely difficult collection of crises and catastrophes confronts us in the days ahead.
On the other hand, it’s comforting to recall the whole series of small miracles that built this country from a rag-tag collection of bold revolutionaries challenging an empire, to the world’s greatest superpower. And to remember as well that heroes and greatness are born and bred by crises. Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt were all faced with multiple serious difficulties and reversals, especially in their early days. As the world knows, they eventually succeeded and by so doing proved their greatness.
Now it’s Obama’s turn.