Sunday, November 9, 2008

“Change We Need”—Can Obama Deliver?

Barack Obama is a special leader, with a special opportunity. As he has emphasized with such eloquence in his campaign speeches, this is a defining moment for America and the world. At a moment of tremendous uncertainty around the world, President Elect Obama has risen to power against great odds because he had the audacity to hope.

The response of people around the world to Obama’s hopeful message has been overwhelmingly warm and positive. A day after the election, I watched in awe as Nigerians in the ancestral village of Barack Obama Sr celebrated his son’s historic victory. An Afro-Colombian community on the northern coast of Colombia staged mock elections just so they could cast a symbolic vote for Barack Obama. Children at the school in Indonesia that Obama attended as a youth, watched the returns with eager anticipation. And my personal favorite: In Japan, Obama supporters from across the country, including a few American ex-pats, converged on the town of Obama, Japan for a huge victory party as the U.S. electorate made history. It truly seems that at least for the moment, American voters and onlookers around the world have put cynicism aside and allowed themselves to hope. As Oprah said publicly, “Hope Won!”

This is the first great contribution of Barack Obama – he has made it O.K. to hope again. He has energized a weary people with his enthusiasm and vision. After the duplicity and complicity of the Bush years, even the most die-hard American cynics are starved for something to be hopeful about. When you add the continuing economic crisis, geopolitical tensions over scarce energy resources, and ever more pressing ecological challenges to the picture, it’s clear that the opening decade of the 21st century has not exactly been full of hopeful news.

That is precisely why we need Mr. Obama. The incompetence of George W. Bush bred cynicism, and his fear-mongering tactics paralyzed many Americans. By contrast, Obama’s bold vision for America has inspired hope, and his reassuring, explanatory communication style will mobilize us to create the change we need. Fear paralyzes and hope mobilizes.

For me, this is the great promise of an Obama administration: that his leadership will unlock the collective genius of the American people by engaging citizens on an unprecedented scale to act with a renewed sense of purpose and focus. We cannot afford diversions right now, solving our problems will require ingenuity, foresight, perseverance and sacrifice.

A Time for Action

Given the severity of global resource depletion, climate change, and the pressure of over-population, we are facing an ‘all hands on deck’, ‘all investment capital on deck’ scenario to address these issues. The silver lining of the current economic recession is that there are plenty of idle hands, and the number is growing fast, especially in the construction sector of the economy. But, as you may have gathered from the news lately, in terms of investment capital the outlook is not so sanguine.

At the moment the government is the only entity capable of investing on a scale that could make a difference nationally. And the government has already stretched itself way too thin by funding the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the war in Iraq (total cost is over $500 billion), not to mention the chump change we dropped on the Fannie and Freddie, AIG, and Bear Stearns bail-outs. These bills are truly enormous, so it’s not surprising that the U.S. Treasury is issuing bonds like crazy, piling debt on top of debt in order to stave off financial apocalypse.

Our fiscal situation is grim – no two ways about that. But if we can get out of Iraq, we will save over $100 billion a year and the best case scenario for our illustrious portfolio of toxic mortgage backed assets is that we recover a significant portion of our money. Assuming the best case occurs, maybe our government won’t go bankrupt. But, regardless of what happens in Iraq or with TARP, we have to pass a massive stimulus package aimed at helping the middle class, even if it means maxing out the national credit card. But we don’t just need checks in the mail, we need real investment. I think that if we fail to do this, we could watch a huge portion of the middle class fall into poverty. Such is the severity of the current recession, and such is the inherent vulnerability of our current economy (more on this in future posts).

We are at the front end of a recession that is likely to be lengthy and severe; now would be a great time for our government to invest in a more ecologically sustainable future. One of the first things President Obama will do is send a comprehensive economic stimulus package to Congress. We need this money to go into new national infrastructure projects. Private industry hates taking on projects like this even in the best of times, because it’s difficult to make a profit short term. But during a recession, government funded infrastructure projects are a win-win: they put people to work and they benefit the country long term.

In the 30s the New Deal’s PWA built bridges, canals, and dams. Today, we need an electrified rail network to move people and goods, and we need renewable energy infrastructure. Taken together these projects have the potential to significantly reduce our national demand for fossil fuel derived energy. Some energy experts are calling for a major outlay for renewable energy, particularly wind, so that we can scale these efforts up to a level that will have an impact. How we respond to these ecological constraints is the issue of our time. If we don’t get this right, social security and health care and education won’t matter.

How does this fit with Obama’s vision for America?

To salute Obama’s election, a British newspaper published a collection of Obama’s speeches, beginning in 2004 when he burst onto the national political stage as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In these speeches, Obama consistently outlines his vision for a more unified American society, motivated and focused by the values we share, and mobilized by hope for a better future. He repeatedly emphasizes his commitment to ensuring that government works on behalf of ordinary people. What a novel concept -- a government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people!

At present, the speeches exist only as political rhetoric, and I am well aware of how fleeting political promises can be. But in our modern age of excessive corporate power and influence, it’s refreshing to watch a politician address the issues of corporate greed and political corruption – even rhetorically. After all, the words of charismatic leaders can be very powerful. It was the soaring oratory of Martin Luther King that touched off the civil rights movement, and social movements often rally around the words and ideas of a persuasive individual.

Obama’s vision for America is compelling indeed; voters turned out in record numbers to support him. Now it’s time to see what he and his new Democrat-led Congress can do. It will be interesting to see if and/or how his priorities as president differ from his campaign promises. With the specter of the financial crisis still looming and a recession on his hands, something is bound to fall lower on his list of priorities. I personally think it’ll be healthcare, but we’ll see. In his first press conference, Obama indicated that it was high time to set politics aside and start getting things done. Right now it seems that the economy is top priority, and I’m very interested to see what form his economic stimulus package takes. He has talked about investing in renewable energy and re-tooling motown to create green jobs. This would be a good start.

Right now everything is in flux, so there will undoubtedly be many surprises in the coming years. But if Barack Obama can tap further into the reservoir of latent enthusiasm and energy that exists among us, and if his leadership decisions as president reflect the ideals espoused in his great speeches, I believe we may look back at this election as the beginning of a marvelous green revolution in America.

**If you are interested in learning more about a potential Green New Deal, check out this article on the Post Carbon Institute website:

"This recession or depression is appearing at the exact historical moment when action to end our dependence on fossil fuels is required in order to avert the chaotic collapse of the entire human enterprise." --Richard Heinberg

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