Thursday, October 30, 2008

Obama should be nasty and nice

There are still a few days to go before the new US president is decided by popular vote, but there's little doubt now that Barack Obama will become America's first black leader. Youthful and untested, he is less impressive for what he has shown himself able to achieve than for how his oratory and life story have captured the yearnings of his nation - and beyond. Now, he needs to take a leaf from the book of anyone with a young child (and, reassuringly, he's a daddy too, of course).

We're referring here to how a parent should not typically either be thoroughly vicious or entirely kind to one's progeny. Too nasty, and the child can become confused, hurt and rebellious; too nice and he'll walk all over you. Though Sonny is only a week into his seventh month, we are already trying to set boundaries to go along with the coddling. Obama, then, should play both good and bad cop pretty much straight away. Here are two obvious areas in which this strategy would play out.

International affairs: Obama should follow through with what he has promised and initiate contacts with a range of people who have been in the bad books of the Bush administration. He has been campaigning on a platform of change and much of the world has bought into the mantra. Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea - they could all be reached out to: Not by a presidential pow-wow or photo-op, but at some meaningful level through the State Department. The new president should also signal lound and clear that the US would rather initiate action through multilateral groupings than forge its own lonely path.

At the same time, however, Obama needs to make it clear that the US is not going to roll over and play weakling. The best way to do that is to launch a hefty blow at some terrorist objective. He need not publicly acknowledge the move - the hapless John McCain was at least right to say that you don't tell the bad guys your game plan - but nonetheless the message of resolve will be conveyed to those who will have no trouble understanding it. One place that's ripe for such an action might be the Iraq-Iran border, through which succour for militants flows unhindered. A well-aimed strike - not just a couple of fire-and-forget missiles - would put everyone on notice.

The economy: Obama is going to raise taxes. That's a given, though he'll make sure that the majority of voters conspicuously escape the pinch. He's probably also going to increase spending on various social programmes and push for some form of universal health care. What he needs to do is make some bold gestures that would show that he's not the enemy of economic innovation and entrepreneurship that his political enemies make him out to be. His choice of Treasury Secretary would be one way to make a substantial stand: Someone like Warren Buffett would reassure the markets, though choosing a big-name Fortune 500 CEO (rather than some think-tank wonk) might also do the trick. Ideally, this person would be a Republican and someone that Obama conspicuously backs up, so that he doesn't end up a mere token figure bereft of true policy-making heft.

This is especially important since it is far from obvious that the global economic crisis has run its course. A steady, pragmatic hand on the tiller will be critical - one that will fairly deal out economic pain to all, if necessary, without playing favourites. The performance of the US economy will affect the rest of the world, so missteps will be painfully magnified globally: Obamania will quickly die down if protectionism, for instance, spreads unchecked.

Apart from these two areas, the 'nasty and nice' principle should also apply as the new president tackles immigration, education and the restructuring of the country's social safety net - all of these are potentially divisive topics where there is no obvious national consensus. Chances are he's going to have hefty majorities in Congress friendly to his agenda: This will help speed things along, but will also make it tempting to give in to partisan leanings when crafting legislation. He'll have to curb some of the inevitable excesses - and will earn respect (along with howls of complaint from his own party) if he does so.

'Nasty and nice' has to apply across the board if it's to apply at all.