With opinion polls showing Barack Obama expanding his lead over John McCain just days before the United States presidential election, attention is turning to what kind of policies Obama will try to execute if and when he occupies the White House after Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.
Already, this presidential transition is shaping up as one of the most difficult in American history: the next president will inherit two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, potential showdowns over nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, a newly aggressive Russia, and a financial crisis worse than anything since the Great Depression.
Even though he has many experts on his team who are studying the problems, the fact that the next president will have barely ten weeks to assemble his cabinet and prepare his policy agenda before taking office illustrate the difficult challenge he faces. Many pundits ask indeed why anybody would want a job so fraught with peril.
An advised transition
Obama has approached this staggering task with cool methodology. He has appointed two experienced advisors to head the executive transition teams that will put together his new government. John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, is handling domestic issues including top policy priorities like climate change and energy security, the financial crisis and job creation, and an overhaul of tax and education programs.
Given the dramatic risks of a global downturn and the evident need to reform the world financial system, Obama has emphasized the themes of economic reform in the last phase of the campaign in an effort to distinguish his proposals from those of his Republic opponent.
Aides say he speaks several times a day with key advisors like former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in order to refine his message given the twists and turns of volatile world markets.
More support from Europe
The global economic crisis has in some respects overwhelmed what was already a daunting foreign policy agenda. James Steinberg, the former deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration, is heading the transition team assigned to shaping the foreign and security policies and assembling the team that will carry them out.
Obama has declared his intention to set a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office and will try to move even more quickly in order to reassign forces to the conflict in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies have been ascendant.
In addition, Obama will call on the European allies to assume greater responsibility in helping shape policies to combat terrorism that will put new emphasis on economic reconstruction rather than brute military force -- in other words, a more determined effort to win hearts and minds rather than kill suspected enemies.
He has also expressed a desire to show American leadership by embarking on new initiatives in three areas neglected by the Bush administration: climate change, nuclear disarmament, and a ban on torture to show respect for international law like the Geneva Convention. While those policy changes will no doubt be applauded in European capitals, the call for Europe to do more during a phase of economic turmoil in helping the United States may not be greeted with enthusiasm.
The end of the unilateral Bush era
The Obama administration will have no choice but to tackle several major challenges at once. He will push for a major new stimulus package to put money back in the pockets of American consumers and will launch a massive new infrastructure fund to help repair dilapidated roads and bridges that will also have the healthy effect of creating new jobs.
The next Congress, likely to be dominated by Democrats, will want to impose new regulations on derivatives and other "weapons of financial destruction" that are widely blamed for causing the global credit crisis. After seeing Republicans tear down regulatory controls in a fit of free market fanaticism, the Democrats want to restore laws that curtailed the role of banks and investment houses.
In addition, Obama will look at how institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund can be modernized and adapted to a world vastly different from the post World War Two era when they were created. The Group of Eight industrial powers will likely be doubled in size to include Brazil, China, India and other emerging economies. Like the United Nations, these organizations have suffered a loss in public esteem because they no longer correspond to the realities of our time and thus lack legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
On the foreign policy front, Obama's first major trip abroad will probably occur in early April 2009 to Baden-Baden, Germany for the 60th anniversary summit gathering of NATO leaders. The heads of the other 26 allied governments will listen closely to Obama's speech for insights into his presidency, but his words are likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance since he will no doubt still be putting together his cabinet and foreign policy team.
But he will surely show that America has turned the page on the Bush presidency by declaring the era of unilateralism is over and that the United States will re-engage with the rest of the world, including direct talks with its enemies, by demonstrating an abiding commitment to diplomacy and the rule of international law.
Opinion surveys show that this change is strongly supported by the American people, who have grown dismayed and disenchanted with the misbegotten military adventures of the neoconservative cabal that dominated Bush's foreign policy team.
In short, America and the world will probably wake up on the morning of Nov. 5 to a dramatically different government taking over in the United States. If Obama can fulfill the hopes and ambitions of the millions of American voters yearning for change, he will go down in history books as a transformational leader who brought the United States back from the precipice of decline as a world power and restored its original sense of purpose as a stalwart defender of democratic values and human rights.
William M. Drozdiak has been the president of the American Council on Germany (ACG) since February 2005. Prior to that, he was the executive director of the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. In addition, he has worked as an editor and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Time and The Washington Star, covering such historical events as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first peace agreement between Israel and Egypt and the Iran-Iraq war. Drozdiak was a professional basketball player in the US and Europe between 1971 and 1978. (kjb)