Beyond Hope and Change

By Namit Arora | Feb 2008 | Comments


Two eager contestants, tooting their horns and dissing each other. The media readying us for fireworks, sharp attacks, a "do or die" fight. Showdown in Texas is how CNN bills the live event. No, not a big boxing night, only the 19th Democratic Primary debate in Austin. Held in a giant auditorium, the event is less debate, more performance and spectacle, with snappy phrases, choreographed delivery, calculated show of charm and emotion. With millions watching and thousands cheering lustily, what matters above all is the air of authority and confidence—in voice, body language, rhetorical flourishes. The people want theatrics, verbal sparring, sticky moments. People-meters report audience sentiment in real-time. Smooth, photogenic pundits wait in the wings to offer post-debate punditry. Welcome to democracy in America.

Obamasurf_2 It is no small miracle when—despite all the dubious qualities required to survive the endurance test that the primaries have become—a worthy candidate still emerges. This time, Obama holds that promise. He seems to me more decent than others and exudes a more nuanced, reflective, and principled approach to issues, though his platitudes and populism worry me ("yes we can", "turn the page", opposing Nafta, promising lavish economic stimulus packages). He'll likely be less jingoistic and less ideological than others. I'm encouraged by his years in Indonesia, which surely help him see an equal humanity in non-Americans (as should his father's Kenyan and Muslim heritage). This is hugely positive, if you pause to think about it.

But while Obama may be a fine person, will he focus on the right things and deliver results? Unless he does, he'll not make a fine president. Beyond all the voluptuous talk on hope and change, here is my list of the "right things" I want the next American president to focus on:

  1. Climate change, clear air, the environment: Invest massively in clean energy research, nuclear power plants, mandate much higher gas mileage for new vehicles, join and drive global efforts and standards bodies. Alongside, find ways to nudge China and India towards cleaner technologies, protect forests, better manage water, etc. (not from an altruistic impulse but from enlightened self-interest).

  2. Fiscal health: Raise taxes (currently well below other developed countries), figure out how to reduce the national debt by half in a decade, balance the budget (any president who tries to cut taxes further should be poisoned for the benefit of later generations). Else we face the prospect of steep inflation, further currency devaluation, and major economic hardship in the decades ahead.

  3. Foreign policy: Get a real moral backbone. Be fair, principled, and balanced (especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). "Threat to American interests" is not an adequate justification for aggression—others have interests too. Increase global aid for health, education, and natural disasters. Instead of democracy and "freedom," adopt the language of justice and liberalism. Show more humility, in thought and action.

  4. Domestic Issues:

    • Slash the defense budget by at least 50% in the next 3 years (to mid-90s levels).
    • Divert savings from above to finance universal health care, a moral imperative.
    • Save social security and Medicare, the bedrock safety net of the New Deal.
    • Check/limit the power of lobbyists to impact legislation and foreign policy.

  5. War on terror: Abandon military-led responses to terrorism. Far more damage has been done by overreacting to the relatively small threat of al-Qaeda. A smarter approach is necessary. Future generations may well look at the US and draw comic parallels with a man chasing rats in his basement while his house was on fire.

Second-tier issues include: enacting comprehensive immigration reform, reducing global nuclear arsenals, dissolving the Patriot Act, fixing the US penal system and abolishing the death penalty, investing more in American schools, reforming the UN to reflect today's global order, promoting liberal judicial appointments, revoking the trade embargo on Cuba, changing US stance at the WTO, ensuring net neutrality, etc.

Does this differ from your own view of "right things" or their priorities? Tell us how.



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