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Obama Forecast

Veteran Political Scientist Provides Insight Over 44th President's Administration

January 20, 2009

By Keith O. Boyum

Keith O. Boyum

Every "Intro to American Government" student grapples with an analysis of the “jobs” or functions of a president of the United States. Well, beginning even before his Jan. 20 inauguration, the Obama administration has jobs aplenty. Here is a quick overview of three general categories of functions and some to-do lists.

Chief Legislator

No president can cast a vote in either the House or the Senate and none can introduce a bill. Yet, at least since Franklin Roosevelt, every president has been expected to propose a legislative program and to work for its adoption.

• Debate is already well under way about a very large spending program designed to counter falloff in aggregate demand in the economy, the credit freeze, unemployment levels comparable to 1945 and related woes.

• Be not shocked when politics break out: which investments in infrastructure will be included? What proportion of the spending will take the form of extensions of unemployment insurance? What proportion will begin a program of providing medical insurance to more Americans? How much will be tax-cut sweeteners to attract Republican votes? What is the priority of slowing mortgage foreclosures?

• Listen for criticisms of some spending as “ear marks” (demonized by Sen. John McCain), and wait for some far-right commentators to argue that the New Deal failed three-quarters of a century ago. It didn’t.

• Pay attention to what policy initiatives may be deferred in the rush to stimulate the economy whither immigration policy, energy independence, gays in the military, education and health care initiatives, stem cell research, quasi-statehood for the District of Columbia. Inside baseball will focus on the details of Job One, the economy, but also will contest decisions over the next four or five top priorities.

Head of State

Presidents are heads of government in the United States – like prime ministers. American presidents also are heads of state – like queens. As such, presidents evoke, promote and symbolize deep values, and win adulation from ordinary citizens just for … parenting cute grade schoolers, owning a Labradoodle, canning a jump shot.

• In America’s first African-American presidency, watch for a celebration of “post racial” values, and check in on the apparent success of any outreach to voters averse to the president’s skin color.

• Especially early in the administration expect efforts to reach across cultural divides. Both the evangelical Rick Warren and Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson will address God on Obama’s behalf during inaugural festivities.

• Note Republican responses to this. Some in the Grand Old Party will seek to encourage diversity, but others will rally to narrow expressions. As with any “out” party, anticipate intraparty Republican debates about identity and paths to future electoral success.

Chief Diplomat and Commander in Chief

Presidents negotiate with other nations, and may make fateful decisions about committing American armed forces.

• In the short run, look for somewhat accelerated draw down of forces in Iraq and some increases of American forces in Afghanistan. But practicalities matter and time is needed. Thus, a very quick exit from Iraq, for example, is unattainable. Closing the Guantanamo prison camp will take at least a year. Nation building in Afghanistan will be a slog.

• In the medium run, global flash points will demand attention on Obama’s watch, including a pair tracing back to 1947: India-Pakistan conflicts unresolved since partition and independence; and Arab-Israeli differences unresolved since, well, partition and Israeli independence. Nuclear proliferation comes to mind as well — Iran and North Korea.

• What else will be added to the agenda in the first two years or so? Candidates include normalized relations with Cuba; stability in Africa, including the horn Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Nigeria; the expansion of NATO; and accommodation with Venezuela.

• In the longer run, major global interests need tending, adjustment, perhaps renovation. Not less than Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43, the 44th president must manage the place of Russia and the rise of China in the world; provide security for energy imports; nurture continuing close ties with G-7 nations; and address global environmental issues, including warming and oceans husbandry.

Keith O. Boyum, emeritus professor of political science, recently retired as associate vice chancellor of the California State University system, where his work included policy development and operational oversight of CSU systemwide academic affairs initiatives.

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