2009 is upon us, and making any predictions about it seems even more difficult than usual. The one event that is as certain as such things can be is that the disastrous Bush presidency will come to an end in a few weeks time. But how will Obama respond to the many and intertwined crises that he faces? Based on his own rhetoric and actions so far, and on the normal logic of politics, one would expect him to seek out the middle ground, which has shifted a long way to the right under Bush.
But these are not normal times. The logic of economic events has already pushed governments to take measures that would have seemed unthinkable only a few months ago. While bailouts and bank nationalisations have staved off total economic collapse, it’s clear that much more will need to be done, and that governments will have to do most of it.
At present, all of this is being treated as a temporary interruption to business as usual. The Rudd government, for example, having provided one massive stimulus to the economy and preparing for more, guaranteed bank deposits, bailed out childcare centres and so on, is still touting its credentials as “economically conservative”, a phrase that appears to entai a new search for possible cuts in public expenditure, and continued adherence to limits on the ratio of tax revenue to GDP. But (I’ll try to spell all this out more in later posts) the notion of economic conservatism, interpreted as strict adherence to the policy doctrines that have been generally accepted for the past twenty-five years or so, no longer makes any sense.
The picture is similarly cloudy in relation to foreign policy issues. While Obama has garnered immense goodwill simply for not being Bush, that will dissipate fast in the absence of concrete steps, many of which are likely to be resisted by the Foreign Policy Community. Starting with the closure of Guantanamo Bay and an unequivocal repudiation of torture, extraordinary rendition and so on, the US government needs to admit that it is not above both international law and the laws of the United States itself. The increasing evidence that military victory in Afghanistan is unattainable implies the need to think about possible routes to a partial and negotiated peace – as one of the few participants in the conflict from anywhere near the region, Australia should be particularly concerned.
Last but not least, there’s climate change. The Rudd government has given a pretty clear demonstration of how not to adjust climate change policy in the light of a macroeconomic crisis. It remains to be seen whether Obama will do better, whether he can carry the US with him and whether the world as a whole can come to an agreement that has any chance of success.
fn1. All this will be complicated by the latest disastrous events in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as they develop over coming weeks. As this topic tends to hijack comments threads, while adding nothing to our understanding, I’m going to delete anything about it, except in the specific context of US policy.