Barack the Timid

March 26, 2009 Topic: Grand StrategyThe PresidencyPoliticsSecurity Region: Americas

Barack the Timid

Instead of being bold and daring, Obama has been staid and cautious. He needs to take some risks and step on some toes to get America out of its economic funk.

Given the eight years of emotive, sloganeering policy making the country has just endured, President Obama's temperate press conference Tuesday night hit the right tone. Obama projected a sense of being in control and broadly understanding the problems facing the country.

The American people can hardly be blamed for wanting a steady hand on that aptly described "big ocean liner" of state. All the same, careful and deliberate policy making need not be tentative. And in these important, early days of his presidency, Obama seems to lack follow-through in dealing with the most pressing problems. So while Obama got the tone right during his second press conference, he still has shortfalls in substance. Indeed, he scarcely mentioned some of the most important and challenging issues facing his administration.

Obama touched on only in passing his administration's plan for dealing with banks and the illiquid assets on their books-at the core of the country's economic crisis. He did come close to congratulating his Treasury Secretary for finally offering a plan though:

I think when it comes to the banking system, you know, it was just a few days ago or weeks ago where people were certain that Secretary Geithner couldn't deliver a plan. Today the headlines all look like, well, all right, there's a plan. And I'm sure there will be more criticism and we'll have to make more adjustments, but we're moving in the right direction.

Obama chose, on Tuesday, to not discuss, or even strongly endorse, that Geithner plan he referred to. The economic crisis entails some financial instruments and investment procedures of considerable complexity that don't make for succinct talking points. Most Americans without expertise in the area, including the president, cannot be expected to understand all aspects of its cause and potential aftershocks. But a number of authoritative analysts that do not have a monetary stake in the institutions in question have raised alarm over the administration's plan for dealing with toxic assets. Such an outcry from well-informed, disinterested parties is a cause for concern.

There do seem to be some problems with the plan, which appears to put too much stock in allocating funds for stimulating the economy and providing guarantees for risk-averse investors. But according to many analysts, the administration has not done nearly enough to ensure that banks go through the difficulty business of reckoning with their books and ridding themselves of currently illiquid assets.

In this regard, Obama seems to not want to offend. He has chosen halfway between a market-oriented approach and the kind of crony, socialized capitalism that his predecessor opted for. The administration should have chosen to either organize an auction where assets could be bought at market rates and allow those banks with worthless assets to fail, or, if it was to subsidize the banks by providing guarantees to the investors that buy the assets (as Obama has chosen to do), it should have gone ahead and taken control of the banks and cleaned up the institutions' books along the way.

Likewise, Obama scarcely mentioned Afghanistan. At a risk of oversimplifying, the recent messages of the president and other officials on South Asia seem to boil down to: the situation is very difficult, but the administration is going to do its best, adding-for good measure-that the government doesn't expect to be able to solve Afghanistan's complex problems by killing all the bad guys. The impact of raids on the civilian population has been questioned, as has a mandated military review of the practice that preceded the strategy's resumption. There has also been leaked hand-wringing over drone attacks, but reportedly those also continue.

The administration has said it is planning to put pressure on the Taliban to prod at least some of them to the negotiating table. Such a frontal attack will probably only give the highly adaptable Taliban and al-Qaeda militants more scores to settle and a more resolute and hospitable local population to find refuge in. Islamic militants, foreign and domestic, have a history of fighting together against foreign invaders. U.S. and NATO forces have a distinct tide of modern history to surmount.

Obama would be better off if he applied the ocean-liner analogy to Afghanistan as well, and launched gradual attempts to woo the population before attempting other changes, including (sadly enough) those encompassing some human and women's rights. The United States and NATO should, to crib from the president again, work persistently in south Asia, but need to identify some core priorities to work toward. Such slow-moving progress depends on the cessation of drone raids and other blunt attacks that tend to yield large-scale civilian casualties. The United States need not abandon Afghanistan, but it will not benefit the country if it sets its goals too high.

No one can accuse President Obama of lacking a sense of his place in history. The context of his rise would impress any leader. Once he became America's first black president, the first chapter of his history was written. Indeed, Obama has said he hears Lincoln when writing his speeches-suggesting he upholds the racial/social significance of his triumph. It is therefore natural that the president was asked last night about the potential impact race has had on his presidency and his dealings with others.

But an appreciation for those headlines of history could unduly influence the president. It would only be natural for the first black president to harbor a sense of responsibility to avoid alienating parts of the country. Indeed, Obama seems to be taking pains to prevent divisiveness at a time when he should be taking clear policy directions and expending political capital. At no other point in his presidency will Obama have four years to mitigate the impact of his tough choices. And given the state of the country he inherited, he faces nothing but tough choices.

To some Americans, Obama's rise to power has fulfilled a nation's egalitarian promise and remedied racial injustice. Obama should consider that promise now fulfilled and the symbolic gain made, and move on-as he said he has done. Given the fluctuations of the polls leading up to Obama's victory in November, most Americans judged the presidential contender based on his positions and their read on the current condition of the country, rather than on preoccupations with his race. Some Americans may have surmounted preconceptions of race in voting for Obama, but the country does not, by and large, seem to perceive Obama as a black president, but rather as the president.

Americans regard the symbolic salve on racial wounds as a welcomed development, but not as the overriding priority. And given the state of the country and its foreign endeavors, the public is probably prepared to countenance some far-reaching and consistent policy making. Obama should begin stepping on some toes, to the benefit of those eponymous ordinary Americans-and those not so ordinary. Obama still has four years for those policy decisions to yield results, but he has to steer that ocean liner in the right direction-and be persistent.


Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.