At 12pm on Jan. 20, the US will have experienced 16 years of contentious, divisive and mediocre government. This bleak period will have been evenly split, to the day and hour, between Democrats led by former US president Bill Clinton and Republicans by US President George W. Bush.
That dismal record will test president-elect Barack Obama, who takes office that day, as much or more than the economic recession, the issues of immigration, energy, education and healthcare; the bog of Iraq and Afghanistan; the latest flare-up between Israelis and Palestinians and a litany of difficulties that almost any schoolboy could recite.
Moreover, the new president’s task will be hard because only 33 percent of eligible voters in the US cast their ballots for him. The rest either didn’t vote, or voted for Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican candidate, or voted for Ralph Nader or Bob Barr or candidates from other parties. Obama cannot claim a mandate to ram through his proposals.
Nevertheless, all Americans, even those who didn’t vote for him, should wish Obama well and hope that his presidency is successful, if for no other reason than the US cannot afford another four or eight years of discordant, second-rate government.
The same wish should be true for allies and friends of the US. Despite the US’ troubles, the constructive application of US power is still vital to the well-being of nations from the UK to South Africa to Japan. Further, potential adversaries such as China should hope that Obama can steer a course that serves the US’ interests as well as preclude armed conflict.
It won’t be easy. Witness the alleged corrupt schemes of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Obama. The governor has been charged with conspiracy and bribery and driven the already turbulent politics of Chicago to a new low as he has defied widespread calls for his resignation, including from Obama.
Or the bitter parting shot from Bob Herbert, a liberal columnist for the New York Times who wrote last week: “I don’t think he [President Bush] should be allowed to slip quietly out of town. There should be a great hue and cry — a loud, collective angry howl, demonstrations with signs and bullhorns and fiery speeches — over the damage he’s done to this country.”
In sharp contrast, there are signs that civility might return to US public life. From all reports, Bush has gone out of his way to have officials of his administration brief those of the new administration to help them get started. For his part, Obama has been careful not to presume on Bush’s responsibilities and prerogatives as president. More than once he has said the US can have only one president at a time.
Similarly, Bill Kristol, a conservative with unquestioned credentials, said in another column in the New York Times: “I look forward to Obama’s inauguration with a surprising degree of hope and good cheer.”
Noting that Obama will be sworn in with President Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, Kristol said: “Obama could do a lot worse than study Lincoln and learn from him.”
In Asia, the incoming administration will be confronted immediately with a looming crisis between India and Pakistan caused by the attack in late November on Mumbai, the financial center of India, presumably by Pakistani terrorists.