The Next United States Presidency
Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review
BETWEEN his election on 4 November and the time he takes office on 20 January 2009 the world will be awash with articles advising the next US President, Barack Obama, how he should set about the enormous task ahead of him. Pundits of every description will be putting forward their blueprint for his presidency. Most of them will not have an iota of administrative experience between them. Those who have, politicians among them, will have their own axes to grind and grievances to work off. If there is 'a still small voice of calm' (as the American Quaker poet John Green-leaf Whittier called it) which can still be heard among those conflicting admonitions, it will surely urge him to ignore them all. If he is sensible he won't wait to be told; he knows that this is the age of self-gratification because he has confronted it on the campaign trail and what could possibly be more gratifying than saying '... as I told the President?' We are all ready to offer unsolicited advice, especially about subjects of which we know next to nothing, and there is not one of us who does not think that he can do a job better than the man doing it, even if he is only mowing the grass. So, like Kipling's cat that walked by itself, the new President will keep his own counsel.
There are heads of state and heads of state. However, the US Presidency is perhaps the only job in the world which is, quite literally, in a class of its own. Compared with a man who has the courage and conviction to tackle that gigantic task, we should acknowledge our inadequacy. As soon as he seats himself for the first time behind the desk in the Oval Office the world and its problems will hit him far harder than he could possibly have imagined on the campaign trail or during those long years of preparation. He might enter the Oval Office walking tall, borne through the door by the world's congratulations. He will almost certainly leave it after his first morning overwhelmed by its expectations. As almost all his predecessors have discovered, it is not an easy world to please, the Americans themselves, his own constituency, whether they voted for him or not, least of all. Europeans too, in general, are full of hopes for the new dawn in Washington. Yet after days of unbounded jubilation, some are beginning to view the new presidency with a degree of realism as the Italian newspaper La Stampa put it on 13 November: 'Obama will have to set aside his mesmerizing rock star mask and be forced to navigate his way through the traps and thorns that are the legacy of the previous government in global politics. [...] The truth is that many a dozy dreamer in Europe mistook Barack Hussein Obama for a knight in shining armour out of a fairytale'.
The list of problems with which the new President will have to grapple writes itself. It is a long one and it will be difficult to know where to begin; a man, even the US President, can only do so much. One is already a little sceptical about his prospects, the legacy he might hope to leave. In his shoes I would draw a deep breath, take something to relieve that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and quieten the agitated beating of my heart, study the list carefully and ask myself whether there is not something lurking in the middle of it all which I might set about right away to create a framework, if you like, which might help put them in perspective and thus make their resolution, not easier, but a little less daunting, give me a point of reference on which to stand before launching myself into the abyss, and a parachute to land me safely when I do.
I would start by accepting that 1 have to work within an unhelpful conjuncture of events. The first is that the world's problems have never been graver; they are truly global, more than that, they are universal. The second is that US credibility has never been lower. It has not touched bottom but after Iraq and Afghanistan and the current financial crisis it has sunk quite far. …