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President Obama and the World

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
Updated: January 20, 2009


In the view of many analysts, the United States enters 2009 as a power in decline. Its freewheeling financial system, once the envy of the world, is blamed for sparking a global economic crisis rivaled only by the Great Depression. Emerging economies less exposed to the crisis and blessed with other advantages (low labor costs, natural resources) stand to gain in financial power and political influence, writes Roger C. Altman in Foreign Affairs. Yale historian Paul Kennedy adds that heavy dependence on foreign investors like China reflects a scale of U.S. indebtedness comparable to imperial Spain or France prior to their decline from global preeminence (WSJ). Additionally, the Bush administration's war with Iraq damaged the credibility of the United States, which had insisted on the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, then emphasized Iraq's value as a budding democracy when the threat was found not to exist. The U.S. government's own National Intelligence Council says global U.S. dominance "will erode at an accelerating pace" over the next sixteen years.

Into this troubling mix strides Barack Obama, whose historic presidential campaign promised change on the heels of the unpopular Bush presidency. In his inaugural address, Obama chided Americans for their "collective failure to make hard choices" and reaffirmed pledges to reform U.S. policies on energy, education, and health care. To the watching world, Obama portrayed the United States as a friend and good neighbor. He confirmed his intention to focus on winding down the war in Iraq and ramping up a commitment to pacifying Afghanistan, adding: "With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet."

Obama's first order of business is shepherding through a giant stimulus for the U.S. economy. But he doesn't have the luxury of ignoring a packed foreign policy agenda, including his duties as commander-in-chief of the nearly 200,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the tricky diplomatic efforts to neutralize the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

Still, though the Congressional Budget Office's projections of a $1.2 trillion deficit for the next fiscal year already seem conservative, Obama has political capital to spend. At home, he continues inspire public confidence, as noted in a fresh poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Abroad, "no other American president in memory will have started in office with such broad public support," observes former top U.S. diplomat R. Nicholas Burns.

Some analysts object to the depictions of a U.S. decline. Scholars Robert Dujarric of Temple University Japan and Andy Zelleke of Harvard's Kennedy School note that the election of an African-American as president demonstrates anew the dynamism of American democracy (CSMonitor). Michael Fullilove, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in the Sydney Morning Herald that "enormous quantities of soft power" have accrued to the United States with Obama's victory. And the willingness, so far, of other countries to continue to buy U.S. securities, and thus finance the United States, allows Obama "to mount a vast fiscal and monetary rescue program," writes Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.

Obama looks set to preside over an accelerated drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq, has signaled a closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center (though acknowledging difficulties in housing prisoners), and has promised to more clearly forbid torture as an instrument of interrogation. He has promised a "new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk" to Iran to end its nuclear program, which is widely suspected of being cover for a weapons program. At the same time, with renewed U.S. engagement in the world is likely to come new demands on U.S. partners (Daily News Egypt) on everything from stepping up NATO support for Afghanistan to pressing Russia and China to dissuade Iran from pursuing its uranium enrichment program, writes CFR President Richard Haass.

But for months to come, Obama's ability to revive the U.S. economy is likely to be his most scrutinized performance benchmark. Twenty-eight years ago, another incoming U.S. president swept into office with a mantra of changing the ways of Washington. One of the most enduring lines of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address was that "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." Obama, by contrast, has already said "only government" can lead the country out of its economic doldrums at this moment. Amid high anticipation, the world will be watching the forty-fourth president's inaugural address for inspiration and a road map out of the gloom.

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