Might Obama Go Big? And If So On What?

Most of the responses I’ve seen to Obama’s second inauguration speech don’t seem to think the more left wing rhetoric amounts to much. The expectation seems to be for four years of the same tepid compromises in most areas mixed with appallingly right-wing positions on issues like National Security.

I wouldn’t bet against that. Force of habit, if nothing else, can tend to make second terms much like the first. Still, I’m not so sure.

My thinking is this: Most heads of government want to be remembered for something, an outstanding achievement or even two or three, that makes the rest of what they have done look like worthy follow-ups rather than scattered and trivial gestures. American presidents, in particular, tend to want at least one such thing each term. I think Obama, more than most, has his eye on history in just this way.

In his first term he had healthcare. There is also a fair chance that history will judge him as having staved off a Great Depression with the initial stimulus package, even if he got minimal credit from the voters at the time. Bin Laden was a lucky break to give him a second chance if the macroeconomic work is forgotten or rejected.

It’s very unlikely Obama will be happy to finish up with his two major achievements having been within a little over a year of taking office, and almost seven years that will be judged as marking time.

So I think he will be considering very hard what can provide him with a marquee issue this time round.

Gun reform won’t do it. Even if he gets his whole package through he knows a few hundred lives a year is not going to look like a primary achievement for a term. Further improvements to healthcare won’t cut it, he needs something new. Getting out of Afghanistan might have counted in the first term, but six years after he first took office won’t be something exciting unless a peaceful, democratic and secular state is left behind, and no one thinks that is going to happen.

It’s possible Obama will actually go for something bad – most obviously escalating extra-judicial killings in an effort to wipe Al Queda out entirely, but I can’t imagine he really thinks that will work. Remember this is history he is chasing – it doesn’t matter if people think it worked when he leaves office in 2017, what he will care about is the judgement 20 or 50 years down the track (and unusually he may well be around to see that judgement).

I can think of a few possibilities:

  • A permanent colony on the Moon or a serious project to Mars
  • A war on cancer or, less ambitiously, developing world diseases such as malaria
  • Voting reform that would protect against the tampering the Republicans keep trying
  • A lasting solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict
  • Getting serious about tackling global warming.

    I’m willing to bet this is something he’s given serious thought to. Quite likely getting staff to draw up briefing papers on which is the most achievable option, given that trying to split his focus between several ambitious goals is almost certain to lead to disaster.

There’s a high chance he’ll wimp it and go for something that looks easier, particularly with a hostile congress, but I suspect the inclusion of climate change in his speech may be an indication that this very much under consideration.

I think it makes sense for several reasons. Firstly, Obama is smart enough to know that in 20-30 years time every president post Carter is going to be judged in large part on what they did and didn’t do on this issue. Not solving Israel-Palestine will not get you blamed. Allowing half of Florida to go under water and the Midwest to turn to a dust-bowl will seriously tarnish, nay trash, his legacy.

Secondly, while complete success is obviously impossible, partial success is a real possibility. That’s true when fighting cancer, for example, but not for some other options. At this point you won’t get any points for getting a 5 year truce in the Middle East. You have to solve the problem permanently. Whereas, if the record shows that Obama did more than all previous presidents combined (not hard), outdid the leaders of all other major nations (somewhat harder) and prevented enough emissions to fend off at least some of the anticipated effects of climate change (quite hard) he’ll probably get the credit he’s craving.

That still leaves the problem of getting Congress on board or finding a way around them. For this reason he may decide not to try, or may try and fail. But I’d be surprised if he’s written the idea off yet.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Non-science (but not nonsence). Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Might Obama Go Big? And If So On What?

  1. Judy C says:

    Fingers crossed for Obama using his powers to educate the masses on climate change and get things moving in the right direction in the USA

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