Monday, November 10, 2008

New President of U.S

New U.S. president will face hard choices

On election night in the United States, there will be an emotional celebration, the likes of which contemporary America has rarely seen, especially if Barack Obama wins. Echoes of the Founding Fathers, and the promise and imperfections of the nation, will reverberate.

Even if John McCain pulls an upset on Nov. 4, he is a man of such character that he will try to address some of the wrongs perpetrated in his name, while being immortalized as the most resilient Phoenix-like figure in U.S. political history.

This is a big election; in very different ways, these are two big men.

Yet soon thereafter a sobering reality will hit: This new president inherits the most troubled country, in terms of domestic and foreign policy, of any new American leader since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

As fascinating as 2008 has been, neither of these men has educated voters much on the challenges ahead. The tone and substance of the campaign are really no different than they were six weeks ago, while the world has changed.

"It would have been better if one had told America about the stark realities of how difficult this is going to be," said the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

In the 24/7, sound-bite-driven politics of today, Goodwin and others say, this may not be possible. It's still unfortunate.

Both Obama and McCain devoutly believe in public and civic service and the centrality of sacrifice to American exceptionalism. With two wars and the most severe financial crisis in three-quarters of a century, the times call for shared sacrifice. The foundations of the global economy are in tatters, a $1 trillion deficit looms and any light at the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan tunnels is dim.

Obama, when asked what policy changes this new environment requires or what sacrifices are necessary, talks vaguely about the need to "start thinking" about energy conservation and the like. He refuses to cite any significant spending cuts he would make in light of the new fiscal situation.

He suggests that the country can have universal health-care coverage, make a huge down payment on energy independence and fund expensive alternative-energy sources, enact a variety of desirable new domestic initiatives and cut taxes for 80 percent of Americans. All in his first term.

That is good politics in the autumn of 2008; it will make for difficult governance in 2009.

The impracticality of McCain's programs is more serious. His pledge to balance the budget within four years - repeated earlier this month, well after the impact of the fiscal crisis hit - is a travesty, neither desirable nor achievable.

Asked how he would get there, he first trots out the old, and now tired, saw of ending earmarked funds for special projects, which is fiscally insignificant.

He espouses a freeze in discretionary spending, which is also bad policy. A few small examples: Would a President McCain cut, in real terms, spending for the National Institutes of Health and research efforts to find cures for diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's?

His running mate, Sarah Palin, says the McCain-Palin administration would increase funding for the National Institutes of Health, the government's health research laboratories. In Florida, McCain talked about funding for the space program. What else will be unfrozen?

There are only two ways to even start down the road to a balanced budget: Cut back on the growth in entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare, and scale back the $4.2 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years that the Arizona Republican has promised. On these, McCain is silent; he has asked no sacrifice of wealthier Americans.

On foreign policy, there will also be a sobriety check shortly after Nov. 4. McCain says we're "winning" in Iraq. Really?

Obama suggests that a troop surge in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, is what's needed; few experts agree that more troops, as necessary as they may be, will turn the tide there.

Then there's Russia and how we deal with the despotic Vladimir Putin, abusive at home, aggressive with his neighbors, yet probably essential to any international efforts to handle the nuclear threat from Iran. "We are all Georgians," as McCain said, isn't a policy prescription for dealing with Putin.

And it's a good bet that the next president, at some stage, will be confronted with the reality that the greatest foreign policy issue facing America, economically and strategically, during the next generation will be China.

China has been absent from the agenda on the campaign trail. In the debates, it was mentioned only in passing, chiefly by both McCain and Obama noting that the United States owes half a trillion dollars to the Chinese.

Much of this neglect is probably unavoidable; such is the nature of modern campaigns. The cable-television shows and most of the blogs don't do thoughtful.

Moreover, as Goodwin notes, some of the greatest presidents displayed similar gaps before getting to the White House. Abraham Lincoln was criticized for not speaking out more forcefully as the Union was dissolving before he assumed office. In 1932, Roosevelt, while calling for the bold experimentation he would undertake, also campaigned on a balanced budget.

There have been grand moments in this campaign, which, like other epic political contests - 1932, 1960 and 1980 - will be the stuff of conversation among our grandchildren. In 40 years of covering presidential races, never have I seen more eloquence or enthusiasm.

If, as most everyone expects, Obama wins, the crucial turning point would have been mid-September, when the financial crisis really began to be felt. This was a momentous event, and he chose not to pander to the passions of the bloviators and sound-bite merchants. He was calm, confident, measured, thoughtful. It was what a scared electorate wanted.

Toss in a dollop of inspiration, and he will need all of this in the times ahead.

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