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Hopes and Fears for Obama's First Year

Hopes and Fears for Obama's First Year

Thursday 22 January 2009
by: Steve Weissman, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

The excitement over America's new president is growing, even here in the backwoods of France. Over dinner last week, a completely apolitical and non-religious British friend compared Barack Obama to Jesus Christ, while my favorite French magazine waxed lyrical on Obama's "cool." As an old-time Doubting Thomas, I have never felt that kind of enthusiasm for any political figure, but the significance of Obama's election struck me in an unexpected way. I was watching the confirmation hearings of his cabinet nominees on C-SPAN, when Attorney General-designate Eric Holder mentioned his sister-in-law, the late Vivian Malone Jones.

Back in 1963, Vivian and a young man named James Hood stood up against Gov. George Wallace and integrated the University of Alabama. Their courage, and that of hundreds and thousands of other black people in the South, inspired black and white students throughout the country, who in turn built a movement of millions that, at the very least, kept Washington from bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age, as some of our military leaders urged. And now, nearly half a century later, Vivian Malone's brother-in-law was telling a Senate committee that, as the incoming attorney general, he viewed water-boarding as torture and the Geneva Conventions as the law of the land. History unfolds in wondrous ways, especially when people have the courage to fight back against unjust laws and unjust wars.

For all that, only far-right loonies believe that the new president will try to bring down the rich and mighty, or that he will call off America's long-standing effort to dominate the world's oil and natural gas, which was the not-so-hidden agenda behind George Bush and Dick Cheney's "War on Terror." Obama has never offered to slay the capitalist dragons or stop their fossil-fueled foreign policy. Maybe next time, but for now the best we can expect is that he will fight for the progressive reforms he promised.

Will he? Or won't he? Sticking my neck out, I'll offer a few personal predictions that you can throw in my face next year.

1. Easing credit. Obama has promised to exercise greater control over the billions Washington is pumping into failing banks. He has also promised to force bankers to lend more and renegotiate home mortgages instead of simply foreclosing on hapless homeowners. The reality of the crisis will compel him and his economic team to do no less.

2. Creating jobs. To his credit, Obama has chosen to follow the lead of congressional Democrats and provide more stimulus money. I still don't think it's enough to create the millions of jobs we need, especially in areas other than "shovel-ready" roads, bridges and schools.

3. Going green. Many environmentalists see too little money going into public transport and alternative energy. I agree. I also doubt that the billions going into the failing auto industry will create less-polluting, gasoline-saving cars that consumers will buy or jobs that will stay in America.

4. Universal health care. Health care Czar Tom Daschle admits that a single-payer system would be the fairest, most efficient and least bureaucratic way to provide medical care. But, he insists, the insurance companies and health maintenance organizations have too much political clout for Congress to pass a single-payer plan. Perhaps Daschle is right. But he and Obama would find it easier to mobilize millions of average Americans behind a simple, straightforward plan than a convoluted, more costly compromise that the vested interests will first oppose and then cripple. So, unless Team Obama says "Yes we can," I predict a poor substitute for universal health care that will cost too much, provide too little and further discredit "socialized medicine."

5. Medical coverage for the unemployed. Given the hard times, I expect Congress and the new administration to expand Medicare to cover those who have lost their jobs. This will also help stimulate the economy and could - faint hope - build support for single-payer.

6. Rule of Law. Eric Holder has dramatically recognized the obvious, that the Constitution does not give presidents the power to do whatever they want. Whether he meant to or not, he also opened the door to legal prosecutions and private lawsuits of wrong-doers in the Bush administration - a course that congressional Democrats and human rights groups will continue to push. Obama, with his focus on the future, may want the whole business to go away. It won't.

7. Iraq. Obama pointedly promised to bring home only "combat troops," leaving as many as 30,000 "military advisers" and other soldiers and marines behind. I expect he will fulfill his limited promise, and I can only hope that the Iraqis themselves will find ways to assert their own sovereignty against the remaining troops.

8. Israel/Palestine. Even before the terrible bloodshed in Gaza, Obama was preparing a major initiative to revive the peace process toward a two-state solution. Israel's invasion and the resulting surge of Palestinian support for Hamas now make this effort more difficult - and more urgent. To succeed, Obama will have to stand up against the Israeli lobby and pressure Tel Aviv to remove Jewish settlements from the occupied West Bank. Given his understanding of American interests throughout the Islamic world and beyond, I believe he will.

9. Iran. Obama will try to deal diplomatically with the Iranians, but he will not succeed as long as he and Hillary Clinton talk about keeping "all the options on the table." Such threats only encourage the Iranians to pursue the bomb and the Israelis to pursue a military strike.

10. Afghanistan. Obama has approved current plans to send as many as 30,000 more American troops into that unforgiving country. If he continues on this course, he risks an endless war that could prove more costly than Iraq and derail many of his domestic reforms.

11. Pakistan. Happily, Obama has already backed away from making a priority of catching or killing Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas that border on Afghanistan. Since firing rockets into those areas from drone aircraft and sending in troops weakens Pakistan's recently elected government, Obama now needs to stand up against his military brass and stop these attacks altogether. I would be greatly surprised if he does.

These are my hopes and fears for these historic times. What are yours?


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A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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