1/26/2009 Libby Sternberg

Can We?

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The inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president, is historic. But once the celebrations end, the work begins. The new administration faces a host of issues on the domestic and international fronts. Four Franklin & Marshall professors give their thoughts on four of the most pressing issues in the coming months: foreign policy, energy, health care and the economy.

Foreign Policy

Despite campaign promises, many presidents are overcome by events that cause them to shift direction. This is a situation Robert Gray, the Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government, thinks is a possibility in the foreign policy arena.

"In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran as the peace candidate against Barry Goldwater, but in 1965 he responded to increased attacks on American forces in South Vietnam with a substantial escalation of the war," Gray says. "During the campaign in 2000, George Bush argued for a more humble foreign policy and against nation-building."

That said, Gray does believe Obama will generally stick to his promises, including "managing the withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq." Other action items, Gray says, are trying to stabilize Afghanistan, managing relations with Pakistan (with its fragile government, nuclear weapons and growing Islamist movement), dealing with the Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons and improving America's image in the world.

On troop withdrawal, the new president might be dealing with some pre-determined deadlines. "A plan calling for troops to be removed by 2011 should be close enough to his campaign promises to be acceptable," Gray says. "The question we can't answer is, 'What happens if during the withdrawal there is an increase of attacks on American troops?'"

Will anti-war groups give the president the benefit of the doubt? For a while, Gray says. But the new president isn't "as ideologically pure as MoveOn.org would want him to be, so inevitably they will be disappointed."

The world, too, will be scrutinizing the new president, and here Gray believes America's "soft power—goodwill stemming from a positive image of America abroad—can be improved with some key decisions. These decisions include closing the Guantanamo detention center [ed. note: Obama issued an executive order on Jan. 20 to close the center by year's end], adopting a more forthcoming American policy on climate change, participating in the International Criminal Court, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and leading an effort to substantially reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world.

On the tricky issue of closing Guantanamo, something Sen. John McCain also supported, Gray suggests dividing detainees into different categories: those who can be tried in U.S. courts, those who can be sent back to their own countries and those against whom the evidence is strong but difficult to reveal in an open court. For these, Gray suggests Obama will have to devise a special court system that is fair but keeps important information secret.

Another group of detainees is more difficult to handle—those whose home countries will not accept them could be dangerous to release, but against whom evidence is not so strong.

"I'm pretty human-rights-oriented," Gray says, "but releasing possible terrorists into the U.S. doesn't make any sense at all."

Dealing with radical Islamists in general, Gray believes, will require that America work to manage a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. "Until there is an acceptable settlement, the Muslim world is going to perceive America reflexively behind Israel," Gray says. "This is used propagandistically by the Muslim world."

Whatever the foreign policy challenge, Obama will rely heavily on the counsel of his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Tapping Clinton has led some observers to draw comparisons to President Lincoln's cabinet, the "team of rivals" written about by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Gray, however, sees some risk in that strategy. "When Lincoln appointed his team of rivals, you didn't have the Internet, or even copying machines. You didn't have a situation where it was so easy for folks to copy and leak things. So, can you really have a team of rivals? I don't know."

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Health Care

The economy might have been foremost on voters' minds in November, but health care was tied to that issue. Concerns about rising health-care costs and health-care access are two top issues that Joseph Karlesky, the Honorable & Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government, sees at the top of the new president's agenda in this policy area.

"Health care costs in the U.S. are the highest in the world," Karlesky says. "But we tend to be pretty far down the world list in terms of quality, on infant mortality and on life expectancy, for example."

Obama clearly wants to expand health-care coverage, Karlesky says, a daunting challenge in this economy. "As more people lose their jobs, they'll need something done about health care. The dilemma is that the economic turmoil that drives that demand makes it harder to do something."

Nonetheless, Karlesky believes "policy windows"—times when circumstances and public sentiment provide opportunities for change—might be open with a new leader. But, if Obama waits too long, Karlesky says, the windows might close.

Or, as an old political saying goes, you can't bank political capital, you can only spend it. If Obama is willing to spend his capital on this issue, he "might be able to increase access to health care in ways the Clintons failed to do in the 1990s.

"I think President Obama is a pragmatic guy," Karlesky says, "but he has to strike while the iron is hot. If he waits too long, the possibility of fundamental change evaporates."

A trilogy of factors, though, will make it even harder: a bottomless American demand for better health care, a dense forest of interest groups with smart people in Washington pressing their cases and the enormous amount of money at stake that raises the temperature of the debate.

Karlesky believes that because of Americans' desires for "the best diagnostic techniques, drugs, knee replacement if we need it," the country needs to move toward a more "evidence-based" method of disbursing care. But is this the dreaded "r" word—rationing?

"Right now we have self-rationing," Karlesky points out. "People not buying drugs, or dividing up drugs—splitting pills so they're taking 5 milligrams instead of 10—and people not going to doctors."

Moving to an evidence-based system of meting out care is not, however, a move toward a Canadian or British national health-care system, Karlesky believes. "President Obama isn't going to take people where they don't want to go.

"I know there are groups advocating for single payer," Karlesky says. "That would put all the insurance companies out of business. Although President Obama has a lot of political capital, he doesn't have enough for single payer or a national health service."

He does see Obama taking an incremental approach to increasing access to health care. "We currently have health care for the elderly. If President Obama can get health care for all children, that would be a major milestone."

Covering children would also mean moving toward more preventive care, Karlesky says, and away from more-expensive therapeutic care. "If you focus on preventive medicine, it's cheaper in the long run," he says. "If we can get all kids in the U.S. seeing a physician twice a year, then down the road we should see improvements in both the cost and the quality of American health care."

Energy

During the campaign, escalating gas prices became a major talking point. But what are the other big energy and environment issues the new president will have to face? Professor of Physics and Astronomy Linda Fritz suggests these top three: climate change, energy supply and renewable energy.

"During the campaign, the talk was largely about energy security. We're buying all this oil from people who don't like us," Fritz says. "But, in reality, we import more oil from Canada than any other single country. About 29 percent of the oil we import comes from Canada and Mexico." The real problem, she says, "is recognizing there's a limit to the amount of oil that exists."

Higher gas prices drive down oil consumption, thus stretching oil supplies. Should Obama raise gasoline taxes? "A large percentage (often more than 50 percent) of the price of gasoline in Europe is taxes. That's quite intentional. It's to reduce consumption," she says. Nonetheless, American presidents of every stripe have supported cheap energy, without revealing its true costs, such as maintaining a large military to ward off threats to energy supply, she says.

Even in tough economic times, Fritz believes higher gas taxes could be sold to the public.

"You could gradually increase them and take some of them to decrease payroll taxes. So as the price of gasoline goes up, that gives people incentives to reduce consumption," she explains. "You would have to make it very clear this is revenue-neutral—you take money but people get it back. A president with a fair amount of charisma can convince people these are important things to do."

Fritz believes Obama will have to use his charisma to convince people of the importance of the climate-change issue. Effective communication about climate change's negative impacts, however, must be married with careful programming, she says.

"Both Obama and McCain were in favor of cap and trade for carbon dioxide," Fritz says, referring to a program whereby caps on emissions are set, but more efficient companies can sell or "trade" them to other companies. "McCain was going to give away the permits, and Obama was going to auction them. If you auction them, you have more money coming in to the federal revenue stream. If you assume energy companies are going to pass on costs to consumers, then you have to put the money back into the consumers' pockets through tax cuts."

Energy supplies and climate change are intertwined in Fritz's third focal area, renewable energy. She cites author Thomas Friedman as a good messenger on this topic, someone who has pointed out that if America doesn't jump on new renewable technologies, other countries will, and Americans will have to "buy the technologies from them rather than them from us."

During the campaign a third voice, that of Texas oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens, joined the debate on renewables. He used regular television ads to promote his plan of more natural-gas reliance and wind-energy expansion. Should the president use Pickens' ideas?

"Pickens' plan says we should use natural gas to power our cars instead of using it to power electricity. He says 'let's have wind energy replace the natural-gas-produced electricity,'" Fritz explains. "But there are challenges to wind energy. The wind doesn't always blow. And our electricity grid is broken up. For example, you can't necessarily send electricity from Texas to Chicago. It isn't at all clear that our electricity grid can handle the large amounts of power that would have to be transmitted." Nonetheless, she doesn't think Pickens' plan is unreasonable.

Government's role in all of these issues should be to set standards and to provide needed research and development funds, "where you're priming the pump," thus encouraging people to work "on all sorts of technologies so we have a more robust system in the long run."

"You tell people 'this is where you need to be in five or 10 years,'" she says, "and they, in their wonderful capitalist way, figure out how to get there."

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The Economy

While the campaign focus began on foreign policy issues, it ended on economic ones, with some observers worrying America was headed toward another Great Depression.

Sean Flaherty '73, professor of economics, doesn't think that will happen. But he does think the new president can learn from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's leadership in tough economic times.

"I don't think we'll see unemployment at 25 percent," Flaherty says, referring to the unemployment rate peak reached in the Great Depression. "I suspect we'll soon see rates in the double digits. But President Obama can use his reassuring persona and bully pulpit to stoke the fires of optimism, to help us realize we can deal with this crisis. As FDR said, 'we have nothing to fear but fear itself.'"

Beyond this tactic, Flaherty doesn't think there is a "miracle cure" for America's economic woes. He does think that the country needs a significant stimulus package. "The question is how big, how fast and how deployed," Flaherty says.

He thinks an expansionary fiscal policy involving increased spending and decreased taxes will help, particularly if the increased spending is focused on public infrastructure investment. "A bridge to nowhere will work," he jokes, "but a bridge to somewhere is even better."

Just as with other issues, changing circumstances could make it hard for Obama to deliver on his promises. For example, Obama's promise to roll back the Bush administration's "tax cuts for the rich," Flaherty says, might have to be put on hold. "I think what he has now come to realize is that raising taxes, even if only on the upper crust, wouldn't be the smart thing to do at this juncture."

This begs the question: Because he is so boxed in by current events, how will Obama be able to promote policies that differ from President Bush's?

"Republicans are proving to be the foot-draggers when it comes to acting with some resolve to address the economic crisis. They are really the ones boxed in by the Reaganesque mantra that 'government is the problem,' although it's true that some Democrats have also bought into this political mindset. I would hope that President Obama, building on his own rhetoric of 'change we can believe in,' will be able to open some minds to the idea that government can provide some of the solutions we need," Flaherty says.

Boxing them all in is the steady parade of big-company CEOs with hands held out for bailouts. Flaherty believes this will continue, unfortunately, because once the government bails out one, it's hard to argue why they must say no to the next.

"People are angry—and I count myself among them—that 'fat cats' are being bailed out," Flaherty says, "but they have us effectively held hostage. If we don't provide some significant public relief in key economic sectors, too many people are going to suffer real economic hardship. Not bailing them out is cutting off your nose to spite your face."

As these problems are dealt with, Flaherty sees Obama moving into new territory. "There's talk about a Green New Deal involving substantial new governmental planning and support for industrial restructuring around the idea of sustainability."

He also believes Obama will need to deal with the "rising tide of inequality in the U.S. economy, the fact that the gap between rich and poor is getting wider and wider."

Flaherty thinks the president should support and sign the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act, noting that "the decline of union membership has coincided with growing inequality. That's not to say this is the only cause of that phenomenon, but certainly they're linked."

Will Obama spend his political capital on this controversial measure? Will he expand health-care coverage, develop a revenue-neutral way of affecting gas consumption or find an elusive settlement to Israeli-Palestinian issues?

"There's an old curse," Flaherty says. "It is, 'May you live in interesting times.' It occurs to me we're living in very interesting times right now."
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