Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Onlooker's Meanderings

My education and interests mean I know a lot about British politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries – Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury, Asquith. But my reading and interests now lean much more towards the American scene. I read daily the 'New York Times' on line and weekly 'Time' and 'New Yorker'. I also look at the 'Economist' for world comment and book reviews, science and technological developments etc. But in many ways my life is measured in terms of American presidents. .

'The Dominion' Post has a daily column – on this day in history. This morning’s listings include the fourth inauguration of President Roosevelt as well as those of Kennedy, Regean, George Bush, George W. Bush and Obama plus the second one of Clinton.

Roosevelt was the steady fixture during my childhood. I was ten when he died. My adults were shaken. Unknown, unheralded Truman proved a success. Then came Eisenhower and the Cold War, the background to my university years. I started teaching to the strains of Camelot. Cooking pancakes for breakfast one morning in 1963 I turned on the radio – ‘the president’s widow is flying back to Washington with President–elect Johnson.’ I wept. One question lingers – would he also have emeshed his nation into the Viet Nam quagmire?

So to Nixon. A nasty man but a strange mixture – Watergate yet rapprochement with China, only a republican president could have done the latter. The surprise of Jimmy Carter. Iran made sure Reagan would beat him. George Bush senior took over the baton, but the charm of Clinton saw him defeated. Then George W. squeaked home. It looked dynastic for it appeared time for another Clinton.

It was not to be. From left field came Barack Obama. So much for a potted history. Reagan very adroitly blamed Carter for the problems during much of his two terms. Obama has not potted George W in the same way. To his credit George W. has responded in kind. Unlike Dick Cheney who seems determined to rewrite history in his image.

Obama faced the worst economic crisis since the great depression. Reagan had dismantled many of the safeguards that Roosevelt had erected to prevent it recurring. The whirlwind started in George W’s final year but reached velocity as Obama took over. Unemployment will be the chain dragging at Democrat’s re-election chances later this year. He inherited two actual combat wars with huge financial cost. Bin Laden’s aims had only been thwarted to a limited extent. The terror threat remains, an anchor on American confidence.

It is an old political dilemma. To win a vision is held out. Victory reveals the complexity of implementing that vision. Partisan conflict in Congress doesn’t help. Reduced revenue across the country doesn’t help. Vitriolic vilification of Obama doesn’t help. (Hilary Clinton would likely have attracted even more).

Give the man time I say to his critics. He has tackled many issues. Maybe that’s a policy failure or maybe it reflects a deep sense of the need for a more just and fair society. The instinct for bipartisanship is a good one but maybe given the nature of the political system it’s not capable of implementation. One of the measures for this year will be his performance. I will watch with great interest.

Post script (added after the original blog went up). The Republican candidate has won the by-election for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat. Obviously, disasatisfaction is deeper than this onlooker realised. The historian in me is fascinated. It'll be a roller-coaster year testing Obama's mettle.

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