Tuesday 20 January 2009

Great expectations

As Barack Obama takes the Presidential seal of office this afternoon, he will have the whole world in his hands. Despite the pragmatic good sense of his cabinet picks, he remains a figure on whom everyone wishes to project their views and hopes. And, of course, he will disappoint some of them. But that is not to say that he has to disappoint as a President.

On the contrary, good governance will require a combination of pragmatism and idealism. As The New Republic puts it in their editorial this week, "the real question is how Obama will determine the relative balance between the two." After today's pageantry, his in-tray is more than full enough: sorting out just one of the five big challenges - the recession and credit crunch, Middle East peace, Afghanistan, health care and climate change - would be enough for any Presidential first term, but he has no choice but to try to tackle all five.

Despite the churlish efforts of some to rain on his parade, there is good reason to believe that the combination of pragmatism and idealism that Obama has so far demonstrated will bring us closer to solutions to these seemingly intractable problems. On health care, for example, he has chosen in Tom Daschle the right man for the job, one who has already thought things through, and has already started to co-opt Republican opponents of Hillary Clinton's doomed efforts in the nineties. Of course, we need to see the meat of his and Hillary's foreign policy - 'smart power' is a good phrase, but doesn't yet mean a lot. And one gets the sense that no government has yet hit on the magic solution to get us out of the recession, though Obama's proposals - like Gordon Brown's - seem a lot more likely to do so than doing nothing. Yet even his transition has been smoother and smarter than most.

So we have great expectations for Obama today. The cynics would like us to think that those expectations will be dashed within months. Obama has already broken lots of records and set lots of precedents just by being elected. If he is honest about what he can do - and what others must do to help it happen - there is a real chance he can defy the doom-mongers and ensure that his blend of pragmatic idealism shines through.

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