23 November 2008

Obama’s Next Steps

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Looking ahead to President-elect Barack Obama’s first term, I am struck by two over-arching areas in which Obama’s impact might be greatest—depending on the decisions he makes.

Part 1. Liberal, or Liberal?

The first of these comes down to the question: will Obama govern as a liberal as defined in its 20th century American sense, or as a “liberal” in the classical, more European sense?

During the campaign, Senator Obama’s Republican opponents sought to paint a picture of him as an American liberal of the worst sort, prone to group think (for voting with his party on legislation) and on the far-left fringe of American political sensibilities: a supporter of all of the terrible, individualistic rights that conservatives claim have degraded our society, while being a supporter of greater government intervention. They even retreated so far into such (stale) accusations that they called him a “socialist,’ a label that might have had more impact 40 years ago.

Based on his Senate voting record, there is certainly evidence of Obama’s American-liberal tendencies. Clearly, this did not matter to the American people right now, since Obama won the election handily. At the same time, Americans might also hope that, once in office, Obama may decide to govern as a liberal in the classical sense. I would define this very simply as:
  • Having a clear understanding of—and respect for—the differences and distinctions between public and private spheres of life.
  • Viewing the government as a valuable tool for ensuring political stability through the rule of law—but as the tool of last resort for solving economic problems or deliberating on social issues.
Or, to put this in a very American framework: Obama should govern such that the right to the pursuit of happiness is defined by the individuals or communities doing the pursuing, rather than the government’s definition of “happiness.”

Here are just a few examples of what this would mean in the context of the present-day life of America:
  • Reevaluate the financial “bailout” plan and the idea of government investments in companies with questionable stability or long-term prospects. Instead, use this money to incentivize private investment, research and development, and private-sector job creation.
  • Similarly, allow General Motors, Ford Motor Company, or Chrysler to “fail,” i.e., to declare bankruptcy—and use government resources for (re)training for those employees who lose their jobs.
  • Reform our “Social Security” system so that it focuses on care and support for America’s neediest—with incentives for saving, allowing people to manage their own money for their own long-term needs.
  • Equal access to health care is one of the few things that meets the test of a basic civic good—because a healthy society cannot exist without healthy individuals. Therefore, Obama should completely re-evaluate the government’s role in this area.
  • End the endless gay marriage argument by eliminating civil marriage altogether.
  • Pursue a similar approach to other socio-religious issues, so that we simultaneously allow individual discrimination (in all senses of the term) on specific issues while maintaining government neutrality and openness. From abortion to stem cell research to religious monuments in public parks, our Constitution provides a remarkably clear-headed (and very liberal) guide, and we should use it more often.

Part 2. End The Fear

None of this will matter very much if we do not put an end to another big obstacle and George W. Bush legacy: government-enforced fear. For more than a year now, America’s ever-helpful Department of Homeland Security has been running a series of bus stop and phone booth ads in New York (and, presumably, elsewhere too) promoting its “ready.gov” website. Months ago, I took a picture of the first ad, because I found it so striking; recently, a second ad has been introduced, after a brief lull in trying to scare us with black and white and red letters.

I have nothing against preparedness or planning, and I certainly agree that small businesses can be disproportionately affected by a disaster. But billboards are unlikely to frighten us into preparedness, any more than “just say no” slogans will make people stop doing drugs. Ads like this will either raise people’s level of anxiety and insecurity—surely no help to greater planning, preparedness, or productivity—or lull them into a profound sense of ennui about the whole prospect of being fearful. Neither is a particularly good outcome.

All of which leads to a bigger and more important question anyway: doesn’t the Department of Homeland Security have better things to do with its money than spend it on advertising?


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home