Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Obama's First Fortnight

Obama Off to Promising Start, But Controversial Decisions, Economic Issues Lie Ahead

By Henry J. Stern
November 19, 2008

Election Day came two weeks ago, and so far the great majority is satisfied with what President-elect Barack Obama appears to be doing and saying.

Obama has reached out to people, including former adversaries. The relatively little he has said in public has been sensible, and he has shown a refreshing sense of humor, including mild self-deprecation. From his demeanor on the campaign trail we sensed that the candidate was comfortable in his own skin. He seems to be adapting well to his new role as president-elect.

It was both sensible and courteous of Obama to have resigned from the Senate Sunday rather than participate in a lame duck session, which may end in partisan disagreement. The decision will give his successor additional seniority, assuming that Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois makes a timely appointment.

We also think Hillary Rodham Clinton would make a very good Secretary of State. Speculation over her appointment reminds us of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, described by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, Band of Rivals. Obama, in fact, seems to be channeling his fellow Illinoisan in many ways. We cannot think of a better role model.
Lincoln named Senator William H. Seward Secretary of State in 1861, even though the senator had competed with Lincoln for the Republican presidential nomination a year earlier. Seward, a New Yorker, was the early favorite for the nomination but spent eight months traveling in Europe, during which time the lesser known Lincoln rounded up delegates.

At the Republican convention of 1860, which was held in Chicago, the man from Illinois who had served just one term in Congress defeated the better-known New Yorker. After the President was assassinated, Secretary Seward continued to serve under the first President Johnson. In 1867 Seward reached an agreement with Czar Alexander II, which eventually resulted in Sarah Palin's nomination for Vice President, as well as her view of the Czar’s successors’ domain.

Edwin M. Stanton, who had been Attorney General under President James Buchanan, was appointed Secretary of War (renamed “Secretary of Defense” in 1947). Stanton was not originally sympathetic to Lincoln and did not hide his personal feelings towards the man, once calling him “a long armed ape.” Still, Stanton accepted the cabinet position in 1862 "to help save the country,” and later came to respect the President. When Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, Stanton said: “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.”

Eventually, Obama will disappoint people, because Democrats and Republicans have a wide variety of opinions. But those who feared that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright would swear in the new President on the Koran and that William Ayers would be appointed Secretary of Education should now feel more comfortable than they did a month ago.

We hope that former President Clinton will be able to modify his activities sufficiently to allow his wife to serve as Secretary of State. One cannot be the First Citizen of the World, with business interests everywhere, while one’s life partner is the foreign minister of a country with its own national interests. We don’t believe for a moment that Sen. Clinton would defer to her husband on any substantive issue.

Nevertheless, appearances are important, especially on a world stage. The status of women is at issue around the globe, as the United States seeks to expand women’s rights to work, to own property, even to drive an automobile. In this effort, we are in opposition to other cultures, including some Islamic states, which treat those aspects of everyday life as male privileges.

We also think Secretary Clinton will bring strong leadership to an agency which has been particularly unsympathetic to all kinds of minorities, even Jews. It has been reported that, in 1948, Secretary George C. Marshall opposed the recognition of Israel and threatened to vote against President Truman if the U.S. recognized the infant state. Truman recognized Israel eleven minutes after it came into existence on May 14, 1948. We do not know how General Marshall actually voted, but in January 1949, President Truman appointed Dean Acheson as Secretary of State

The blunt remark made by Secretary James A. Baker in 1992 about the Jews was made public by former Mayor Edward I. Koch in his column in the New York Post. Baker’s harsh words should not be considered anti-Semitic because they dealt with the voting behavior of American Jews, not their merits nor their feelings about Israel.

The names and resumes of people reportedly being considered for other top positions are impressive. In terms of their academic and professional backgrounds, the contrast between them and Bush appointees is striking. Bush 43 deserves credit for late-term appointments such as Josh Bolten as Chief of Staff and Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.

The Darth Vader of the Bush team was Vice President Cheney. What Bush 43 tried to avoid was repeating Bush 41’s error in choosing as Vice President Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana. Quayle turned out to be a lightweight who was little help to 41 as Vice President. So Bush 43 chose Cheney, head of his VP selection committee and probably one of the smartest people he knew. Out of excessive respect for Cheney’s ability and intellect, the President deferred to him far more than he should have. The result has been disastrous in Iraq and elsewhere. It is quite possible to be both smart and wrong. Think Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the struggle for the soul (or what soul remains) of the Republican Party continues. But similar divisions exist within the Democratic Party, between moderates and radicals. There is perpetual intra-party conflict whose outcome varies with the times, often depending on the popularity of individual candidates.

This is a period of national transition, economic disaster and municipal uncertainty. We remember that in 2000 people said that there would never be another election if Bush won. Not only were elections held in 2004 and 2008, but the Bush people did not even try to tamper with the Constitution to allow a third term, despite the fact that the national emergencies we now face are more serious than they were eight years ago.

Americans of good faith hope for the success of the incoming Obama administration. We have every reason to believe it will be more friendly to cities and to urban needs than its predecessor was. We expect more progress in fighting climate change; protecting the parks, forests and oceans; and promoting stem cell research than we have seen. Finally, we hope these issues are not sidetracked by squabbles between parties. Senator McCain should be able to play a significant role in preventing or mitigating partisan disputes.

We refrain today from discussing the problems of the City and State of New York. Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.

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