Posted by: sean | November 10, 2008

On earning the benefit of the doubt

I stayed up most of the night last week on election day to see the results. I’ll admit to dozing for a bit between 5 and 6:45, but I woke up in time to see Obama’s magnanimous victory speech. Throughout the next few days, I received congratulatory messages from Europeans, Africans, Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians and Lebanese.

Yesterday, I was listening to a supporter of the Christian Phalangists and another supporter of the Hezbollah-led opposition here arguing about politics. They couldn’t agree on anything, but they could agree that “Obama is good.” But I was also told by an Austrian in Lebanon that a new American president wouldn’t make any difference, because “Nothing will change! America will always be the enemy of humanity!”

There seem to be two common reactions to an Obama presidency: 1. Obama will put America back on the right path and change its behavior at home and abroad, and 2. While the face of America will have changed, its substance will not have. To my mind, the first idea, if exaggerated, as it often seems to be in the current celebratory mood, is a recipe for disappointment. Obama is not a magician, and the US government is a enormous machine with tremendous inertia. An ocean liner cannot turn around on a dime. Likewise, it will take time and effort to turn the US around, but that shouldn’t discourage us. After all, if you’re in a hole and want to get out, the first thing you need to do is stop digging.

As for the second point, which would have us believe that there’s not much difference between Obama and Bush, I’m afraid that’s exactly the sort of thinking that got us Bush in the first place. In 2000, there was a line of reasoning, advanced by people like Nader and Michael Moore, that Gore was as bad as Bush. In hindsight, this was obviously not the case. So while counterfactual exercises are seldom very helpful, I think most of us can agree that America wouldn’t be where it is today had Gore been sworn in instead of Bush.

For my part, I can’t say that I’m not hopeful about Obama. I am. And maybe my hope is too optimistic or overblown, not realistic enough. But even if Obama doesn’t change things as much as I’d like him to, at this point, after 8 years of the Bush administration, I’d be thankful if the US were to get back to where things were under Clinton. Furthermore, the mere fact that an intelligent, curious, honest and, most importantly, competent man will finally be at the helm of the country is enough to make me sleep better at night.

Finally, a little remark about those in the US who would have Obama pursue a centrist, nearly status quo, agenda. Through the election of Obama, America has just earned the global benifit of the doubt again. We are at a point similar to September 12, 2001, where most of the rest of the world is willing to give us another chance and forgive past transgressions. Bush squandered that goodwill and invaded Iraq. Obama has the opportunity to use it to restore America’s legitimacy, act on issues like genocide prevention and global warming, and generally return to the world’s good graces. Let’s hope that he does.


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