Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Goodbye George W. Bush, Hello Barack Obama

I'm preparing to watch the swearing in of our 44th President and trying to put what is in store for us in perspective. So, let's look at this thing from a few angles.

The 4-Day Rock Event

Any doubt that Barack Obama was a rock star has been dispelled this weekend, with a star-studded HBO event to a massive crowd and unbelievable turnout in DC, overwhelming even the already high estimates. People have come from everyone corner of the world to see Obama be sworn in.

We can expect a few things. The first is a massive security effort. I'd be lying if I said that seeing Obama in front of huge crowds of people doesn't still make me a bit nervous, but judging by the HBO concert held at the Lincoln Memorial, which featured massive air support, dozens of rooftop snipers and a huge law enforcement presence, it appears everything possible is being done.

Expect Obama's speech to be impressive, as they always are. It will likely be inspiration, but short on specifics. More specifics are due when Obama gives his first State of the Union speech, but this speech will be focused on the moment. I would expect Obama to spend very little time discussing race. Countless others have made the point about the historical significance of his race, but Obama has always shyed away from being a "black" President and I think he will continue to speak to unifying themes.

It will be a great ceremony and moment to watch, regardless of your political persuasion. I think the peaceful passing of power between Presidents of opposing parties is one of the best testaments to the power of our republican form of government.

The Early Agenda

Expect some quick executive orders reversing Bush decisions. Among those being discussed are repealing the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, starting the process to close Gitmo, increasing auto fuel efficiency standards and fully allowing homosexuals to serve in the armed forces. It is likely all of these will come quickly after his swearing in.

But these are just side items. The real issue, front and center, is obviously the economy. Agenda item number one is signing an economic stimulus package into law. It will likely take at least a month to broker a final deal with both houses of congress -- the House and Senate will pass different versions reflecting the different make-up of the two bodies and a compromise will have to be hammered out. House Democrats will want more spending and less tax cuts than Obama has proposed, Republicans in both houses will be uncomfortable with the massive spending in the bill. Compromise will be in order to get legislation through. Hopefully the bill won't just get chopped up into a bunch of special interest giveaways -- a real risk in a poorly led congress.

The other side to this is dealing with the second half of the bailout funds. Obama won a fairly narrow (52-43) confidence vote on the second $350 billion, buoyed mostly by Democratic votes. In return, Obama promised to spend $50-$100 billion of the funds to bailout homebuyers. The public and congress are clearly unhappy with the management of the program so far, and who can blame them? We've flushed $350 billion into equity markets with little to show for it. Obama must be more transparent and more strategic in how he spends the funds, but he must also be hasty -- the economic crisis won't wait.

The other big agenda item for early on is getting his cabinet picks confirmed. Most will still fly through, but Obama will have to fight to get Geitner and Holder confirmed. Geitner is critical, since he is Obama's point person on economics. There is, frankly, a legitimate concern with the man who would head the IRS having not paid taxes while earning income abroad. While it may be an honest error, I can't fault Senate Republicans for scrutinizing this question more closely. I still believe he will ultimately be confirmed by a strong majority. Holder will continue to take a lot of heat over Mark Rich and ultimately be confirmed, probably by a largely party-line vote.

On the foreign policy front, expect no big splash, but rather a gradual draw down in Iraq and a gradual build-up in Afghanistan. Diplomatic efforts will obviously be focused on the Isreal-Palestine conflict. Call me a pessimist, but after seeing every president try to resolve this issue, I don't hold out much hope that Hillary Clinton and team can solve this one either. If there were an easy answer, surely Carter, Reagan, H-W Bush, Clinton or W Bush would've implemented it, as it was a stated foreign policy priority for all.

Obama's next highest priority is probably health care, but it is distant compared to the economy and foreign policy. Expect an incrementalist approach, probably starting with an expansion of the SCHIP program to cover more and more kids. A big legislative splash, a la Hillary Care, would be a mistake at this juncture, especially with a massive deficit looming.

Joe Biden Can't Stop the Gaffes
Okay, I guess you can't blame him for his wife letting the cat out of the bag, but it is kind of poor form to let Hillary know Biden was offered the State Department if he didn't that the VP job. She probably already know she was second-fiddle to Biden, but Obama had done a good job of unifying all his rivals, that this gaffe just came off as mean and divisive. I know that wasn't the intent, but it is what it is.

As I watched the HBO concert and listened to Biden's and Obama's speeches, I actually felt a little sorry for Scranton Joe. Biden has devoted his life to public service, has an incredibly compelling personal story and has desparately wanted to be President for a long time (his first run was in 1988.) Obama is very new to the scene, relatively speaking. Yet watching Biden and Obama speak, you quickly realize that Biden will never possess the charisma and command skills Obama does, hard as he might try. He will probably never be President, barring something happening to Obama. And I think Biden knows it.

My Hopes and Fears

I am hopeful that the new administration will restore US credibility abroad. I am hopeful that the strong foreign policy team will successfully navigate us through the dangerous waters. I am hopeful that the last eight years of social policy cowtowing to the far fringes of the right wing will end. I'm hopeful that the economy will get jump-started.

I'm fearful that we will take on way too much debt. I'm fearful that the size of government may expand to a point that it depressed long-term economic growth. I'm fearful that the pace of progress will be too slow for those who have ascribed god-like qualities to a guy who is just a man. I'm fearful that poor leadership in congress will slow progress. And I'm still fearful that some idiot will try to take a shot at Obama.

I read the blogosphere frequently, and I've never seen the kind of scary stuff that the far fringes of our soceity are posting about Obama. I read "Obama must die" in graffiti on an overpass in North Carolina last week. On iTunes, an "Obama Countdown" clock, counting down the hours until Obama was sworn in, drew a comment from a reader "how about a countdown until he gets shoot -- woot". While the left was certainly nasty to Bush, calling a criminal, a traitor, a nazi, etc., you did not see the kind of physical threats that you see against Obama.

It would be devastating to all the progress that has been made with the Obama candidacy to see him get shot. Let's pray the Secret Service is on the ball. 99.9% of America is far better than that. But you always have to worry about the 0.1%.

So, hail to the new chief. Good luck, Mr. President, I wouldn't want the job.

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