Dan tdaxp, Christopher Albon, Matt Armstrong, Matthew Burton, Molly Cernicek, Christopher Corpora, Shane Deichman, Adam Elkus, Matt Devost, Bob Gourley, Art Hutchinson, Tom Karako, Carolyn Leddy, Samuel Liles, Adrian Martin, Gunnar Peterson, Cheryl Rofer, Mark Safranski, Steve Schippert, Tim Stevens, and Shlok Vaidya.
President Barack Obama has hit the 100 day mark which has become a traditional (if unfairly high) bar for measuring a new President of the United States during his “honeymoon” period, ever since the historic “first hundred days” of President Franklin Roosevelt, that ushered in the New Deal. At the time, the United States and the world was on the precipice of financial implosion and the Congress effectively permitted Roosevelt to rule by decree, ratifying his crisis management by passing 15 bills of such sweeping scope that the relationship of the Federal government to the states and the American people was changed forever.
The United States and the world is again in the grip of a great economic crisis, though not quite of the magnitude of the Great Depression, it can be said that only a few presidents in the last century – FDR, Truman, Nixon and Reagan – inherited a similar number of gravely serious problems from their predecessor as did Barack Obama. I was part of the collection of authors of Threats in the Age of Obama above who attempted to discern the major challenges the new administration would face. As a group, we spanned the political spectrum and fields of expertise, many having or had governmental, military or academic backgrounds or significant projects in the private sector and if something united us, it was the 21st century would require new approaches than did the Cold War.
The publisher of Nimble Books, W. F. Zimmerman suggested that the authors take a moment today and asses what we each got right, what we got wrong and what has surprised us regarding Barack Obama’s first 100 days and where we think we are headed.
This request puts me in an odd position because having the last chapter in the book, I opted for a deep futurist perspective to try to cover the “first one hundred years” of Obama with an essay entitled “A Grand Strategy for a Networked Civilization“. Here is an excerpt:
….The difference between leaders today and those in the past – not only past centuries but as recently as the Cold War – is a certain loss of perspective as to longitudinal scale and societal fundamentals. American politicians think primarily in terms of the present, mentally cycling with the nightly news or the upcoming elections, which gives more weight to superficial, tactical, objectives than they deserve, and waste time, resources and opportunities. Not only has the political will to make long term, strategic investments in the national interest faded, it is questionable as to the degree to which they are even considered. The current economic crisis requires action, naturally, but if the incoming Obama administration wishes to make their mark on history, they should give at least as much thought to 2100 as they do to 2010.
….Moral legitimacy of the state, the nature of the homeland it governs and the political economy that satisfies the needs of the people are the fundamentals of strategic calculation; the longer the time frame to be considered, the more that getting the fundamentals right matters.
It is premature for me, given the nature of my chapter, to make a hard and fast judgment yet about where I went right or wrong. I will say that the Obama administration does seem to be taking “moral legitimacy” seriously, as they understand it from their political perspective. Many of President Obama’s gestures in foreign policy, agree or disagree with them, have been designed to recalibrate the global opinion of America’s moral standing as a world leader without costing too much in terms of concessions or cash.
Changing Bush administration policy on Gitmo, “harsh interrogations” and “no negotiations” with adversarial states is an intentional signal that the Obama administration has a different diplomatic posture. On the other hand, the Obama administration has refused to formally sign onto infinitely expensive, utopian, schemes such as Gordon Brown’s “global new deal”. Unlike the Clinton White House in its early days, the administration has also cleverly avoided trying to hand its conservative opponents an outrageous ”bright red line” issue like “Gays in the Military” or “Whitewater”, around which Republican activists could galvanize public support and media attention.
What surprised and pleased me is the degree to which the Obama administration has lined up their national security positions behind the leadership of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, embracing the “military reform” and ”COIN” factions as their own. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is trying to step up the role of the State Department in shaping policy; this is a long term necessity but State isn’t up to the task without a major cultural and organizational overhaul. If Clinton does not invest the effort early, she will be a “road show Secretary” without the supporting cast to be a success. The NSC, by contrast, is being reorganized to maximize presidential control, perhaps to the point of going overboard with micromanagement, if the Somali pirate incident is a representative example. The only senior figure in the administration who seems both out of political step and out of her depth is the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.
What worries me, naturally, is the political economy aspect and the profound centralization of power over the economy being ushered in by Obama, that is accumulating in the hands of very few people as the response to the economic crisis. The inevitable ripple effect, if such a concentration of power were to become the new status quo, would be one of stasis and stagnation. A globalized economy is too complex an “ecosystem” for top-down, ad hoc, hierarchical management to be an efficient or adaptive response. A re-focus on the fundamentals of new growth and not just legacy dinosaurs is in order.