The gargantuan task

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 November, 2008, 12:00am

So those of us who plumped for Barack Obama to be the man have had our day. Life is indeed sweet, we are patting one another on the back and basking in the fact that George W., Dick and that lot will soon be out of the White House. In their place will be a man of purpose, understanding, intelligence, charisma and, yes, colour. But, before we get too carried away in our belief that he is going to solve all our problems, let's face a few truths.

The world is in a mess, thanks largely to outgoing President George W. Bush and his cohorts. Not for seven decades has there been such financial turmoil; years will pass before there is a recovery. Instability abounds: Pakistan is on the verge of implosion and Afghanistan and Iraq are far from the stability that was promised with the US invasions. Al-Qaeda and its terrorist friends remain primed for mayhem. North Korea still has nuclear weapons and Iran seems likely to get them no matter what. A deepening rift has been opened with Russia, and China remains distrustful of American intentions.

No mortal could be expected to take on these problems and quickly find solutions. Yet this is what we are hoping of President-elect Obama. He said as much himself: change was what he was about, so vote for him. That is why US voter turnout was the highest since 1908 and, after two knife-edge presidential elections, a clear winner was chosen. It is why the vast majority of people beyond US shores so avidly clamoured for an Obama victory. We got what we wanted and it is as if a cloud has lifted.

I don't wish to spoil the party, but let's have a reality check. There is no disputing Senator Obama can give wonderful speeches - the one John McCain gave in accepting defeat was classy, but the responding one of victory was poetic in every sense. He is youthful, steadfast and seems capable of being true to his word. He and his campaign team outwitted Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator McCain. He is clearly a man to reckon with.

That said, he does not have much wiggle room. Domestic problems abound: the US$128 billion budget surplus former president Bill Clinton left in 2000 has been turned into a US$1-trillion-plus deficit by the Bush administration. Hoped-for loans to turn Senator Obama's campaign rhetoric into policies are not guaranteed in a world that has lost trust in the US. Personal debt is at record levels, infrastructure is in poor shape and the defence budget is seriously strained. The president-elect's Democratic Party does not have the control of Congress it would have liked; the Republicans can still use blocking and delaying tactics to hold up legislation.

Senator Obama is on the steepest learning curve possible. He has not before served in the executive branch of politics and, at the federal level, has just under four years of experience. These should not detract from his achievement; rather, they indicate the task ahead is a gargantuan one requiring massive resources and effort. To succeed, he has to bring a bitterly divided US together. Republicans have to be brought into the solution-making process. He has to put back the values that the US was built on and which the Bush administration so blindly damaged. America's moral authority beyond its shores has to be restored. Diplomacy and co-operation has to replace unilateralism. Partnerships have to be built with non-traditional allies in the developing world. Public and private debt has to be reduced.

Senator Obama acknowledged in his acceptance speech that the road ahead was long and steep and that his goals may not be achieved in one year or even one term. He is at least a realist; rebuilding what the Bush government tore down will not come easily. The task is not impossible, and for inspiration we should look to the seismic shift he has already made internationally.

America's electing its first black president has immeasurable worth for the cause of non-whites the world over. In Senator Obama, ethnic groups sense that racial equality has dawned. He must capitalise on this gain to get his country and the world working together again.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor