The Obama Presidency
Obama's to-do list
Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds on five things the new US president could focus on.
Last Modified: 20 Jan 2009 18:04 GMT

China's growing power will provide a challenge the Obama administration [GALLO/GETTY]

Rob Reynold's, Al Jazeera's senior Washington correspondent, discusses what Barack Obama could focus on after he becomes the 44th US president. 

This week the New York Times newspaper published letters from kids around the country written to Barack Obama, the president-elect. My favourite is this one, from 12-year-old Chandler Browne of Chicago:

Dear President Obama,

Here is a list of the first 10 things you should do as president:

1. Fly to the White House in a helicopter.
2. Walk in.
3. Wipe feet.
4. Walk to the Oval Office.
5. Sit down in a chair.
6. Put hand-sanitiser on hands.
7. Enjoy moment.
8. Get up.
9. Get in car.
10. Go to the dog pound.
Ok, Ok, get the dog, already [there has been much talk in the US media about the dog Obama will buy for the family when they arrive in the White House]. First things first. Oh, and there's that economic stimulus plan you have to implement, and pulling our troops out of Iraq, and dealing with Afghanistan.

Those are important too. And let's not forget reviving political dialogue in the Middle East, amid the smouldering wreckage left by Israel's brutal war on Gaza and the inability of faction-ridden Palestinians to unite.

Oh, and shut Guantanamo and figure out what to do with the un-releasable detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But beyond the obvious, much-commented-upon tasks that Obama must grapple with immediately there are other, less high-profile but also immensely important jobs for the next president.

1. Focus on energy.

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One of the keys to reviving the US economy could lie in moving forward aggressively with wind, solar, renewable and other innovative, non-hydrocarbon based forms of energy to power cities, homes factories, and vehicles.

It can be done, but not without strong presidential leadership and refusal to cut deals with the corrupt monolithic energy corporations that seem to feel entitled to run US foreign and domestic policy.

The benefits include not only economic renaissance and saving the planet from overheating, but also would distance the US from its reliance on Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Venezuela and other countries with incompatible interests.

The unhealthy co-dependent relationship between the US and its oil addiction suppliers warps US foreign policy and promotes dangerous competition with other major industrialised countries.

2. Reboot the infrastructure.

The US transportation system is a scandalous mess. More than half of US bridges (like the one that abruptly crashed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis a few years ago) are unsafe.

US roads are choked with traffic. Flying into the outdated, dowdy US airports like New York’s JFK or Miami International  these days is embarrassing, as if you had fallen into a time warp and emerged in Bulgaria in 1972.

Especially in comparison with the gleaming, up to date facilities in Beijing, Hong Kong, Madrid or any number of modern cities overseas.

This weekend, Obama chug-chugged his way from Philadelphia to Washington aboard a train that barely reaches 110 kilometres per hour.

In contrast, the Eurostar train between London and Paris zips along at about 220 kilometres per hour; the Japanese Shinkansen, or bullet trains, go even faster.

There is no reason why the US should not have the same sort of fast, efficient, affordable travel links between its great cities.

3. Keep an eye on China.

Like it or not, China is the emerging hyperpower of the 21st century. The US enjoys good relations with Beijing now, but economic competition may strain those ties.

It will be the job of the Obama administration to make sure China does not become the US's enemy.

The Obama administration will have to figure out how to continue to deal with China's rise cooperatively, and not fall back on the old Cold War instinct to contain or confront it.

Many say Obama should not, however, look the other way by condoning China’s human rights abuses and anti-democratic institutions.

Helping China change peacefully is one of the most significant tasks of US foreign policy and one that will play out over many years.

4. Bring Back Accountability.

Obama says he's inclined to look forward, and allow the abuses of the Bush administration to go un-investigated and un-prosecuted.

The US's image has been damaged by abuse scandals at US jails [EPA]
This could be a mistake. To demonstrate the truth in the maxim that 'no one is above the law', Obama should encourage a full and unimpeded probe of every possible violation committed under the Bush administration.

The areas to be investigated may include, but not be limited to, the use of torture in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and elsewhere, the twisting of intelligence to drum up support for the invasion of Iraq, the illegal warrant-less wiretaps, no-bid contracts in Iraq, and the deliberate politicisation of the Justice Department.

Whether or not these investigations result in criminal prosecution, many in the US need to know exactly what happened and who ordered what.

On Tuesday Obama will swear an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States".

As the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes, "That's not a conditional oath to be honoured only when it's convenient.

"And to protect and defend the US constitution, a president must do more than obey the constitution himself; he must hold those who violate the constitution accountable."

5. Seize your moment

The president-elect has an unprecedented historical opportunity to permanently alter the state of race relations in America.

The livid stain of bondage, bigotry, discrimination and distrust can not be easily, if ever, wiped away.

But Obama can go for it — be wise and be bold.

The US has had lots of mediocre presidents, a few really bad presidents, but even fewer great presidents. 

It needs another great one just now.

Al Jazeera
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