My Israeli husband, who does not understand the American form of government in the least ("But can't the President do what he wants?"), has just accused me of racism because I have told him that Obama's election changes nothing. And will change very little.
I confess, every time I hear Obama, I hear JFK. And JFK said all the right things for my generation, which was so tired of the gray Eisenhower years, of elderly men playing golf, and having Civil Defense drills in school where we cowered under our desks as a preparation for the nuclear holocaust we'd been taught the Commies were just waiting to unleash on us; the years of Joe McCarthy and Howdy Doody, when TV adverts showed women in high heels and lots of petticoats under full skirts mopping their already spotless kitchen floors in their brand new Levittown homes.
And JFK not only did very little for America (perhaps his assassination actually was the best act of his Presidency, since LBJ managed to steamroll, by invoking the sainted President, through a hostile Congress, nearly all of the programs Kennedy wanted but had not managed to make any progress with), he very nearly got us into the Third World War, and certainly embroiled us, secretly, in Vietnam up to our necks. And the ghost of Vietnam follows America still.
Forget whatever you learned in high school civics classes. The actual work of government doesn't really resemble the model form one studied. The President proposes, the Congress disposes, and the Supreme Court guards the Constitution, we were taugh. Up to a point, but far more goes on in the committees and corridors than on the floor of either the House or Senate.
Special interest groups, and lobbies, and the home constituencies exert immense influence in Washington. The national interest comes a far second. Orange growers in Florida want to be sure they get a good price in Chicago for their produce, and not have to pay high taxes or fuel costs for transport. Congressmen from Florida don't want to have to face their unemployed constituents in two years' time if the orange/orange juice industry doesn't keep making profits, and not just orchard growers, but the local shopkeepers who supply the workers in the orange groves. And consumers in Chicago want their accustomed glass of inexpensive orange juice.
It sounds awfully nice to say "spread the wealth" and "we can change" but the reality on the ground is that for every perk there is a price. America is based on a very simple economic principle: that merchandise from every place in the country can quickly, easily, and cheaply, be moved to every other place in the country. And, for the foreseeable future, that means cheap gasoline. There is NO current technology which can replace the automobile and truck. Electric cars don't have the range or speed, and the electricity which would power them must come from electric plants which are conventionally (i.e. coal, oil, nuclear) powered. The railroad infrastructure can't meet demand, either, and railroads can't come to everyone. Goods have to be transshipped by truck from station to store or factory. Even should Obama decide to drastically increase the number of nuclear plants to meet need, he would have massive resistance from the anti-nuclear lobby, the environmentalists, and it would take more years (and huge governmental and private investment) than he will ever be in office to build the plants and get them running. The same applies to solar and/or wind power. READ MY LIPS: America CANNOT end its dependence on (foreign) oil overnight, or in the next decade, no matter what Al Gore, or anyone else says. It is a delusion, such as the idea that "renewable" energy is free. It will be very expensive, and that price will ultimately be paid by the taxpayer and consumer. (Can you imagine a law forcing all buildings to put solar panels on the roof AT THE EXPENSE OF THE TENANTS? Can you imagine what the cost to the government would be if the government undertook it? It's just not feasible in the short term, although it would make a substantial dent in energy costs. Dent, not hole: parts of America need 24/7 hot water and heating, and there's no adequate storage battery for solar energy to provide it 24/7. And parts of the country don't have sufficient sunlight for half the year or more. I'd love to see Americans change their bathing, dishwashing and laundry habits a la Israel, where we have renewable hot water only during daylight hours on sunny days)
Americans live largely on credit which they hardly see as such. Yes, unlike Israelis, they can't have overdrafts at the bank. But the credit is there, nonetheless, and it would be a sacrifice to forego the pleasantries the average American takes for granted. I watch NFL football here in Israel on a TV channel which broadcasts from Lebanon, and transmits the American commercials as well. I am constantly amazed at the endless repetition of fast food commercials urging us to eat massive amounts of cheap food (I can get heartburn just listening to the description of the calorie, cholesterol, and fat-dripping items), or to leap into our new SUVs, pickup trucks, or flash cars and drive them maniacally all over the place (while being assured that the vehicle is full of the latest safety fixtures, not to mention bells and whistles, and gets what Americans think is good gas mileage--mileage that no European would ever tolerate). Easy to say, Americans are simply gluttons and wasteful--but a huge, huge slice of the economy is based on the jobs (including advertising) these triple-family-sized pizzas with four toppings and extra cheese and these road hogs create.
Obama cannot cut back on the excesses of America's economy and at the same time expand the economy. Neither can he make a high level of health care available to all Americans (or even a moderate level--which most Americans wouldn't tolerate) and lower costs in the health care industry at the same time. He cannot lower taxes and yet expand existing social welfare programs unless he brings the national debt to yet higher levels. He can create something like a National Service program for youth, but in so doing has to create the bureaucracy to manage it (more of your tax dollars, btw), and convince youth there is some benefit to it (why work if not necessary, especially since you can bet the participants won't be paid much), and actually accomplish something (just deciding where and who would do what will demand at least one committee which will sit for a couple of years).
Tax the rich more heavily, I hear you say, and pass on the benefits to the poor. Sounds awfully nice. Except that the rich aren't fools or suckers. In the past few decades the British have watched as entertainers, media moguls, etc. simply abandoned the UK for places which taxed them less. American businesses would simply outsource more to cheaper countries, coincidentally reducing jobs here which leads to ... we're back where we started. I'm not suggesting that the way to improve the economy is to grant yet more perks to big business, but treating them punitively will most definitely not solve the problem.
"Change"; it sounds so easy. The devil is in the details.
My guess is that the situation in the American (and global) economy is dire enough that foreign policy will be definitely on the back burner, although Obama is committed to getting Americans out of Iraq as fast as he can. That will dump a lot of unemployed soldiers back into a depressed job market, btw, as well as cause a lot of cancellations of army supply contracts for small and medium businesses, which means yet more economic distress. So let's not think about foreign policy just yet, let things slide and hope that Putin doesn't try too vigorously to rebuild the former Soviet Union or the Clown of Tehran doesn't seize the moment to work yet more quickly on his pet project, the ability to dominate both the Middle East and Europe through nuclear means. I don't foresee any real difference in Obama policy regarding Israel and the Palestinians as long as the status quo remains static, any more than Nixon, Clinton, or Bush (both of them) really changed anything concrete. The Palestinians will continue to misbehave minimally and not recognize formally the existence of Israel, the two-state solution will be just as remote as it is now, Jerusalem will continue to be an insolvable problem, and there will be constant "summits" and other talk-fests that accomplish just about nothing.
Obama won the Presidency for several reasons. He had good speechwriters, who consciously had him become a Kennedy-clone (both JFK and RFK), and he faced a generation who had never known the Kennedy years but knew the Kennedy myth. He faced a highly unpopular President on whose watch America had been largely humiliated in Iraq and the economy went into severe meltdown. And Obama's opposition had always been working from a position of weakness: McCain is old, his VP candidate obviously unsuitable and the Bush legacy was always palpable. As a result, Obama's lack of experience could almost be played up as a positive characteristic: a new wind through Washington's stagnant atmosphere.
However, in spite of his Democratic support in both Houses of Congress, he is hampered by not having a power base. He can't call in favors given, because he hasn't been around long enough to give any, nor can he lean on relationships forged over years on the Hill, because he hasn't been on the Hill for any time. Just about everyone older than he is will think they can advise him; the army won't like him, as a completely non-military man (Clinton had this problem), and he has inherited a largely conservative Supreme Court (I actually think this will be less of a problem than he expects; the Supreme Court can be surprising). He is reportedly looking at Clinton's people, which is a good idea, from the standpoint of experience, although whether their ideas mesh with his is debatable.
He's damned if he moves quickly and proposes a lot of hastily written legislation and dubious programs, and damned if he doesn't because the American people are expecting so much from him: economic recovery, universal comprehensive health care, cheap oil and low taxes, and a bailout for everyone with a defaulted mortgage. In two years there will be the first midterm elections he will face. All of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will be up for grabs. If he doesn't get it right--and I frankly don't see how he can because the problems are so complex--he can find himself up the creek without a paddle for the rest of his first term.
And of course, this all assumes no other pressing emergency intervenes. There's been a lot of talk about assassination attempts. This is of course a possibility. It is for every President, actually, and there's no denying that there is a small but significant minority who find the idea of a nigger coon in the White House so offensive that they'll feel it's their duty to put an end to it. A far greater threat is the otherwise perfectly decent citizen who's lost his home or business and counted on Obama to give it back to him, and breaks under the strain. I give Obama a honeymoon of less than six months before America's patience, never long, becomes disappointment. Too many Americans are thinking the current situation is a bad dream, from which they will wake tomorrow morning, to find it's Christmas Eve, with lots and lots of presents under the tree.
Yes, it's a milestone that a black man got elected. Obama's background is not that of the ordinary American black, however, and that must be remembered. His being a person of color was certainly NOT a reason to vote for him, and I fear far too many Americans did vote for him for just that reason. Whether it was from a sense of political correctness or not, I cannot say. He certainly isn't a BETTER candidate for the Presidency because of his color. I fear it might well backfire on him, and on black Americans in general, if he cannot deliver on all his promises.
America has been shown, in the past couple of years, to have finite limits--not something Americans like to realize. America's history has been one of largely never accepting limits--Americans are the "can do" people. America isn't going to like having its perception of reality changed, and that is likely to be the biggest change the Obama Presidency will attempt to force through; and the one that will ultimately get Obama scapegoated, for the shortcomings of his fellow citizens.
So I watch from outside, hoping some of my misgivings prove illusory, but afraid I'm underestimating. I've never been able to understand why anyone would want to be President, to be honest. It's a thankless job, and never more than now.