|President Obama faces multiple challenges – from Afghanistan to the economy [GALLO/GETTY]|
Having surfed to power on a wave of voter discontent generated by the failures of President George Bush and the Republican Party, and having generated a level of enthusiasm among supporters not seen in decades, Barack Obama has become the 44th president of the United States.
But as he prepares to enter the White House, he faces challenges almost unique in modern times.
It has been 40 years since a new president took office in a time of war.
And with the American economy facing what could be its worst crisis since the Great Depression of the late 1920s, Obama will have to act quickly to restore confidence.
|US Elections 2008|
On top of all this, add the confused geopolitical dynamics of a world devolving into multipolarity, at a time when the US’ credibility and reputation is at an all time low, and you get a sense of the terrible pressures a young, new president is inheriting.
So what will President Obama do?
Let’s start with foreign policy.
Obama has promised to pull US troops out of Iraq swiftly and send more military resources to Afghanistan.
He says he will make sure that multinational forces in Afghanistan defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Obama would pursue a much more consultative foreign policy than Bush, emphasising diplomacy as a tool and making use of traditional US alliance structures and the United Nations.
With the country sick of war, he is unlikely to make any additional major overseas military commitments.
He makes clear he is a fervent supporter of Israel’s security, but has also said he would become actively involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process right away.
He has already met with Palestinian leaders during his trip abroad last summer.
I expect Obama to move very quickly to eliminate a major cause of the decline of respect for the US – the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
I would be surprised if he does not announce within a few weeks of taking office that he is shutting down Guantanamo and transferring its prisoners to US facilities for some less irregular form of judicial process.
Europe – “old” and new – will likely breathe a sigh of relief with the end of the Bush era and the advent of a new brand of leadership under Obama.
If he makes the right moves, showing respect for European countries and willingness to act in concert with those traditional US allies, he should receive plenty of support from across the Atlantic.
Already, European leaders, like French president Nicholas Sarkozy, seem eager to become Obama’s new Best Buddy.
Obama says he is willing to meet, with proper preparation, the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba to discuss long-standing antagonisms.
Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez has already said he is willing to talk to Obama if he becomes president.
While Obama insists that the US will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, he makes clear he is interested in breaking the 29-year-old frozen deadlock of mutual suspicion between the two countries.
Pakistan may cause Obama more headaches.
He has said repeatedly during the campaign that he would bomb Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan if the Pakistani authorities refuse to act on them.
But he cannot risk further destabilising an already shakey government and plunging the nuclear-armed subcontinental power into worse chaos.
Obama is a Christian, but given his background as the son of a man born into the Muslim faith (as well as the resonance of his traditionally Muslim middle name) I expect that much of the Muslim world will view Obama optimistically.
He will have an opportunity to re-make the negative US image in many Muslim countries if he chooses to reach out to them.
The same will be true of relations with Africa.
Obama’s roots in the continent are likely to ensure it receives more than the traditionally scant attention it receives from US policymakers.
The children of the great African diaspora in the Carribbean, south America and elsewhere will no doubt have warm feelings of pride in the first black President of the US.
Obama has little experience of Latin America.
But he will owe his election in no small measure to the overwhelming support he has received from Latinos in the US.
It seems likely that he will reward this support with friendly policies toward Latin nations.
However, his commitment to reordering US trade policies to better advantage American workers as opposed to their counterparts abroad may disappoint some Latin American countries.
|Obama could become the most extraordinary US leader in years [GALLO/GETTY]|
But foreign policy (aside from extricating the US from the Iraqi quagmire) will not be Obama’s top priority.
Domestic issues demand his attention – first and foremost, dealing with the faltering economy.
Obama has an agenda of middle-class tax cuts, alternative energy development to build a new job base, and tightening lax regulations that allowed capitalism to go berserk in the Bush years.
Affordable health care and universal health insurance coverage became a sacred commitment during the Democratic primary contest.
Look for Obama to make it a priority in his administration – perhaps entrusting former foe Hillary Clinton with a significant role in shaping the reforms.
In this, as in economic policy, Obama has a national mandate for change.
He may just become one of the most extraordinary leaders the US has had in many years.