Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Sunday Before ...

Barack Obama can do nothing until he is officially in office. Yet already there is a timetable for US troops to leave Iraq and the Israeli’s and Hamas have agreed to a ceasefire. The bailout of the economy is already in full steam. Conservatives have been mollified and there is talk Obama will reverse the bitter cold gripping the country and in fact global warming itself just with the power of his smile. OK, maybe not that last (David Brooks has a line about how Obama was offering, at his dinner with conservative pundits, to change water into wine and asking what grape and vintage the diners wanted).

There does seem to be a huge sense of anticipation right now. A lot of high expectations, including, quite frankly my own. I think most people who have these expectations for Obama think he will miraculously create good jobs and better schools (yes, they are likely to be disappointed). My expectations are somewhat more modest and at once perhaps rather higher. Obama has a reputation as someone who does bring in people who should have different views than his own. He also has a reputation for being able to make the big speech. I am hoping both of those qualities combine to make him a more successful President. I am hoping that the Congress will pass Obama’s key proposals with only minor modification, because some key Republicans will sign on as individuals. And I hope he vetoes an appropriations bill that has been too laden down with Democratic earmarks (throws an elbow, as they say in the NBA), to establish he won’t go along with a measure just because the party wants it.

I do want to make an observation. Obama has (probably intentionally) allowed several parallels to be made between himself and Lincoln. I think if Doris Kearns Goodwin hadn’t written “Team of Rivals”, someone would have invented the term. Actually, I don’t know the origin of the title of her book, so maybe it had already been invented. Anyway, with one key appointment, Obama has decidedly reinforced the comparison to Lincoln.

In the first century of the country’s existence, the office of Secretary of State was probably the second highest office in the land (and no surprise it is number three in the line of succession). In 1860 William Seward was one of the most important figures in the Republican party. He might well have been the nominee for President in 1860, but might have been too strong an opponent to slavery. But when Lincoln chose him for Secretary of State, people thought it was a risky move, especially in time of war. Seward might have dominated the government, pushed the country bumpkin Lincoln aside. Instead Seward gradually was impressed by Lincoln, and in the matter of a year of so became his closest friend and biggest supporter.

Choosing Hillary Clinton is, for Barack Obama, a means of duplicating Lincoln’s big gamble. Of course, Secretary of State is not the same office it was then. But it is a chance for the ambitious Clinton to make a mark on history. And while she is not actually an expert on foreign policy (despite her own claims) or even much more experienced than Obama, she will work hard, perhaps harder than anyone else in the nation would, to find a way to make a mark on history. I think she will prove to be a brilliant choice because I think that if it looks like she is going to fail, she will work that much harder and find ways to salvage even a measure of victory from defeat. That sense that she will work superhumanly gives me hope that Obama will unleash her on the Middle East or on Sudan, and she will succeed where so many others failed.

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