Friday, July 25, 2008

The Show

Senator Obama's trip abroad is coming to concern me more and more. I can't say that I disagree with the content of his message - that Europe and the U.S. should work more closely together, that Iran should accept the current EU proposals for stopping its nuclear program, that Europe needs to support even more the war in Afghanistan. Yet I'm concerned about what is missing.

Missing is a sense of humility. This is an individual asserting himself as president. Granted, Senator McCain did his own factfinding trip. Yet his was more subtle and seemed focused more on dialoguing with other leaders than giving speeches to throngs. Obama is conducting himself as president-in-waiting, and seems to be speaking for the American people.

Also missing is a sense of reservedness. Obama is giving speeches filled with sentiments that are laudable. But he is betraying division at home in the U.S. (which any intelligent observer must know of, but he is amplifying that division for all to see). Also, he is telegraphing too much of the approach he would take. Diplomacy requires a sense of the poker player's guile and sublty. Obama is telling too much of what he will do with his hand when he gets it in January 2009.

There's a great danger that Obama is running in that he elevates expectations for what he will do so much, it will be impossible for him to fulfill them. Europe is getting a package of vague multilateral internationalist principles, but Obama will have to bow to domestic political pressure. That domestic pressure on him will be keen . . . the Democratic Party remains a coalition of political factions and those promises are all seeking Obama's political capital.

But maybe that is just it. Perhaps Obama and the Democrats are signalling a withdrawl from the world stage while they tend to domestic matters.

One thing that I think is getting lost in the media attention on Obama's trip is how other audiences are viewing his tour. Europe's reaction is duly recorded, as is Obama's electorate. But what image of America is Obama portraying to the Middle East? To Africa? To Eastern Asia? To Southern Asia? No doubt, he is seen somewhat as a well-intentioned idealist. But is he positing himself as someone strong and determined?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Evaluating a Presidency

My inclination as a historian is to hesitate on calling a current political figure a "failure" or "success." Often I tell my students that one should wait 25 years before being able to really begin evaluating a president. If I'm right on this, then it really is too early to meaningfully evaluate even Ronald Reagan's presidency. Sure, we can give Reagan credit for redifining the values of the Republican party and we can see his political savvy. But was his presidency a success or failure? Hard to say.

In the current media enviornment, it's almost impossible to find an article, analysis, or op-ed that refers to the presidency of George Bush as anything but a failure. Though I suggest historians will look back on his term as nothing better than mediocre, I think there's ample reason to believe his presidency will be regarded more positiviely than we might think.

On foreign policy matters, he has brought down one of the "Axis of Evil," helped another make major concessions on its nuclear program, and left the remaining member isolated in the international community. Let's not forget that he shephered the return of Libya, pariah of the 1980s, from the wilderness of international disdain. America's geopolitical position has been furthered along the Arc of Instability so that, militarily at least, Iran and Pakistan have fewer options in the upcoming years.

In terms of domestic matters, most years of the presidency saw strong economic growth, Americans' standard of living (as measured by creature comforts) increased, and a major shift in the federal government's role in education. Certainly the president's position viz a viz NCLB is hotly debated by many in the educational community, yet it's unlikely the Democrats will substantially do away with the accountability movement in education in the foreseeable future.

Of course his presidency has his warts.

But it is interesting to compare the likely legacy of Bush with his immediate predecessor. Both stumbled in fulfilling key domestic campaign promises: Clinton with health care and Bush with Social Security. Yet Bush left more of an impact on a secondary domestic front than did Clinton: Bush with education, Clinton with reforms for welfare and "three-strikes-and-your-out" criminal reform. Both alienated key elements of their party with pursuit of larger economic programs: Democrats today talk of reworking the NAFTA that Clinton helped put in place, Republicans balked at Bush's plans for reforming immigration law in the United States.

Both showed appalling lack of judgement in unexpected developments midway through their presidencies: Bush's seeming indifference to Katrina victims, Clintons' indiscretions with Monica Lewinski.

Both angered and embittered citizens who voted against them in two elections.

Domestically, it's fair to say Bush has less to show than does Clinton. However, is it not fair to say that Americans are safer now than they were at the beginning of the Bush presidency?

Legacies take decades to flesh out. But historians will likely view the presidencies of Clinton and Bush to be more similiarly successful than we might think.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Happy Canada Day

I put the Maple Leaf out in front of the house today to celebrate our northern neighbors' closest equivilent to Independence Day. I think our neighbor on the other side of the world's longest demilitarized border deserves a neighborly celebration.

When covering the American Revolutionary era with my students, I like to pose the question why the U.S. didn't go the way of Canada in terms of its independence from Great Britain. An equally good question: Why didn't Canada go the way of us in declaring their sovereignty so provocatively from the mother country?

I often like to think about he symmetries in U.S. and Canadian history. We share many of the same foibles (moments of great insensitivity to immigrant groups, internal conflicts between suppressed minorities and the majority, frustrated relations between natives) and many of the same points of greatness (remarkably multicultural societies, a willingness to fight for other peoples, nuanced federal systems of government, a proud tradition of civil liberties).

History often doesn't give us the chance to experiment. But sometimes you can see two societies with much in common evolve in different ways. Canada and the U.S. provide an interesting lens through which we can see similar (but not identical) lands, political cultures, and populations evolve into distinct societies.