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Home > India > News > Columnists > B S Raghavan

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Why Obama must deliver fast

January 23, 2009

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Being a historic first entails both enjoyment of heady rewards and payment of a heavy price. The 44th President of the US, Barack Obama [Images], who was rather messily sworn in on January 20, being the first African-American to reach the dizzying height of the US presidency, has been the toast of the world. Two million people from all parts of the country thronged the Capitol Mall which was opened for the first time for that occasion to witness the inauguration and 2.5 billion -- the largest audience ever -- watched the resplendent ceremony on the TV all over the globe.

Barely a decade ago, such an event would have been unthinkable, and anyone who even mentioned it would have been dismissed as being out of his mind. Certainly, the American electorate covered itself with glory by its near-rapturous endorsement of Obama. It was a spectacular culmination of half-a-century of struggle waged by the blacks for their rightful place on an equal footing with the whites. With his election, the American democracy itself can be said to have reached its zenith.

It was by no means a triumph achieved by Obama by accident or default. His credentials matched the coveted prize that he has won. It was no mean feat to trounce a celebrity like Senator Hillary Clinton [Images] in the hard-fought slugfest of the Democratic primaries lasting a gruelling two years, and to be so far ahead of a veteran of the stature of Senator John McCain [Images] in the popular vote.

During the entire period from the start of the primaries to the run-up to the election, Obama was the model of self-possession, balance and dignity, with an impressive grasp of public issues and affairs of state. By upbringing and temperament, he prefers consensus-building to political partisanship, and his first impulse is to reach out to dissenters and rivals alike, as evidenced by those he has invited to serve on the top echelons of his administration.

Capping it all is his felicity of expression and resonating eloquence which held his listeners in thrall. All these attributes are sure to give him the advantage of a longer grace period to show results than in the case of earlier incumbents.

Exhibitionism of opulence

Being a historic first and endowed with qualities making for inspirational leadership also raises expectations to fever pitch. The nation would demand from Obama far more than they would from others, and within a much shorter time. He himself has talked so much of change that in regard to both style and substance of his policies, he has to proactively impart a new thrust and a new direction. In short, he should not allow the administration to regress or relapse into the 'business as usual' mode.

For instance, what a telling effect it would have had if Obama, in demonstration of his sensitivity to what he, in his inaugural address, called 'the winter of hardship' in which 'economy is badly shaken�homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered' and in view of the crisis of daunting proportions stalking the land, had dispensed with all the balls and the exhibitionism of opulence and ostentation associated with the festivities on which reportedly more than $200 million had been spent! How come he, who quoted from the scriptures, "The time has come to set aside childish things", did not see the indefensible and inappropriate scale of the celebrations?

It is inexplicably strange that in the entire inaugural speech of Obama, who rode to victory by grandiloquently harping on change, the word did not occur even once! Whereas, one would have expected the speech itself to be an exposition of the nature, scope and dimension of the change he had in mind. That would have made it a speech unlike any that had been delivered on similar occasions in the past. In that sense, Obama has unfortunately botched the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That was why, even though the diction and delivery were typical of Obama, the magic was missing.

Obama may have a longer honeymoon than most, but if, at the end of it, he appears to have been swallowed up by the system and trotting excuses and alibis, the consequential sense of letdown will reach such phenomenal proportions as to rob the presidency of all the glamour and glitter of being a historic first and making people even wonder whether being a historic first is that much of a big deal.

So, Obama must deliver ahead of time, preferably within the traditional first 100 days, and more than what is expected in respect of all the basic issues that weigh heavily on the people's minds.

Economic crisis

The most troubling issue that is sapping the confidence of all sections of the people is the economic crisis. Here, it will not do for the new administration merely to flaunt the trillions of dollars wangled out of the US Congress as successive bailout packages, but draw up a concrete and viable blueprint to make those trillions work. The blueprint should include the exact allocations made for particular sectors of the economy and specified activities and projects as also the oversight procedures that would guarantee adherence to the requirements of accountability, propriety, prudence and probity. Otherwise, the story of huge amounts being wasted and misappropriated in the course of the relief operations following the disaster caused by hurricane Katrina in Louisiana will be repeated.

The second issue which is agitating most Americans is the loss of American lives, apparently to no purpose, in Iraq. It was an unwanted, unjustifiable and unlawful invasion in the first place which has resulted in loss of 4,000 American lives and denuded the US of anywhere between dollars one and two trillion in direct and indirect costs. As has been said, the treasury could have used the money to mail a check for more than $3,000 to every man, woman and child in the US! Almost every household has undergone distress and stress over some member or friend of the family facing danger or having lost his life in Iraq. The new administration cannot afford to ignore the outrage on this account and it has to bend all its collective energies to come up with, and announce, ways of terminating the US involvement in Iraq within the next few weeks.

If  Obama delivers the goods on these two issues alone that affect the very soul of America, he could count on an enormous fund of goodwill and support for the rest of his first term for whatever else he wants to do in other areas of concern. He cannot throw the onus for performance on these counts on the people. It is fairly and squarely the administration's responsibility and he must, in this respect, live up to his own oft-repeated chant, "Yes, we can"!


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