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Obama: The New Captain America?
[Analysis] Ten of the most compelling problems that the President-elect must confront
Asad Yawar (AlexYawar)     Print Article 
Published 2008-11-18 21:10 (KST)   
From "The Audacity of Hope" to "The Globalization of Euphoria": the election on Nov. 4, 2008, of Barack Hussein Obama, a 47-year old former senior lecturer at the University of Chicago whose political career as such did not even exist until the late 1990s, to what is arguably the most coveted and powerful position in world politics, has produced an outpouring of joy that has left even the most jaded observers struggling to sound a note of cynicism.

On hearing the news of Obama's landslide, New York became the scene of impromptu celebrations so exuberant and widespread that long-time denizens of the Big Apple declared that they had seen nothing to compare with them. But such rejoicing was not confined to New York, the US or even Kenya, Obama's most prominent ancestral homeland. In Paris, France, crowds in bars and cafes erupted in the capital of a nation that has long found itself in awkward opposition to certain American military, cultural and economic ideals.

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In Turkey, where feeling towards America has been so negative in recent years that a novel such as Metal Firtina ("Metal Storm"), the denouement of which features a successful Turkish nuclear attack on Washington, D.C., shifted hundreds of thousands of copies and was massively influential in political circles, villagers in Cavustepe, near the Iranian border, held posters with Obama's photo on them juxtaposed next to slogans saying "You are one of us," and "We love you". And in Pakistan, a country which is presently in a state of near-anarchy that many domestic and international experts blame largely on the impact of flawed and destabilising regional US Foreign Policy strategies, schoolgirls in the Punjabi city of Multan painted American flags on their faces and welcomed in the Obama era with placards stating "Peace and Love: Welcome Obama."

With exultation, however, comes expectation. Many commentators have remarked on the challenges that Obama will face: contending with the fallout from the financial crisis that has been the leitmotiv of the past year and a half and disentangling the United States from Iraq have featured particularly prominently in these analyses.

However, while these are undoubtedly real and pressing problems to which workable solutions simply have to be wedded, these are not the issues that will define the success or failure of the Obama epoch in the long term. The reality of today's United States of America is that the incoming president will have to grapple with a number of economic, cultural and spiritual questions that threaten the very viability of that nation as a functioning entity. What follows is a discussion of ten of the most important issues which are imperative for Obama to address if the US is going to remain a global power in any sense in the decades to come.

1. The American Dream is dependent on debt

The economy of the United States has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most dynamic and entrepreneurial in the world; however, this effervescence has tended to obscure the fact that the United States is also the most indebted country on earth. On Sept. 30, 2008, the dollar sign on the national debt clock located in Times Square, New York City was replaced by an additional digit as the US public debt passed $10 trillion. The trend towards public indebtedness is so pronounced that the Government Accountability Office ("GAO"), a federal agency, has stated that if significant reforms are not undertaken, debt ratios relative to Gross Domestic Product will reach an astonishing 600 percent by 2080.

In addition, around 47 percent of this debt is owned by lenders from Japan and China, which means that the financial destiny of the United States is presently in large measure out of its control; should these Asian economic giants decide at any point to pull the plug, the United States will undergo a meltdown so comprehensive that it will make the traumas of the last eighteen months seem like a golden era. A fundamental rethink on how the US finances itself is long overdue.

2. The American dollar is no longer desirable

The United States was able to enjoy a preeminent economic position for so long because of the strength of its currency, the dollar. However, it is clear from most economic indicators that the fundamentals of the US economy no longer justify the position of the dollar as the world's reserve currency, particularly in terms of the country's import-export balance: in 2006, the US was running a current account deficit of $862.3 billion; the country with the next worst balance of trade was Spain, with a deficit of a mere $98.6 billion.

What this means is that in the future, if current trends are maintained, America will find it much harder to pay for its imports as the dollar is likely to be worth considerably less compared to currencies such as the euro, yen and yuan; the pricing of oil in euros by major oil producing countries would spell catastrophe. The respected American economist Max Keiser has pointed out that both Russia and certain Persian Gulf states such as Qatar are already investigating the possibility of launching currencies that are backed by gold as an alternative to the dollar. Successfully negotiating this issue will require an alchemic mix of diplomacy and economic restructuring from the Obama administration.

3. America is a Third World country as well as a First World one

The images pertaining to America that have traditionally saturated the global consciousness since the advent of television have generally portrayed a nation at the cutting edge of science, technology and development. Epic freeways; houses with swimming pools; a young and beautiful Internet-savvy, coffee-swilling population. These are the impressions that have captured the imagination of a planet and which can help explain everything from the mushrooming of shopping malls in Moscow to the small Cantonese television channel which shows nothing but episodes of the international hit comedy "Friends" 24 hours a day.

However, this is not the whole story. America is a country which is massively divided along economic lines. While institutions such as De Paul University in Chicago charge wealthy students $26,150 per term for accommodation which includes a full-time doorman, security cameras, an in-house Starbucks, a nail spa, a tanning centre and "indoor, heated car parking" - tuition fees are an additional $25,490 per year - around 28 million Americans are now receiving food stamps from the government, the highest level since the aid program in the 1960s. There is a stunning fifty-year life expectancy gap between Asian Americans, who have the best quality of life of any ethnic group within the US, and black Americans; although the US accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, it holds 24 percent of the planet's prison population. If unchecked, such inordinate inequalities can only result in societal unrest on a grand scale.

4. American individualism is destroying the American family

Individualism is strongly imbued in the American archetype. In some senses, this is undeniably a good thing. Individualistic cultures can often appear to be more innovative and liberating.

However, when the freedom for an individual to do what they want, when they want has no limits imposed on it, individualism can often translate into pure selfishness, with devastating consequences for such entities as the family, the success of which is contingent on actions of duty, self-sacrifice and responsibility.

Kishore Mahbubani, who is presently dean of the Lew Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former ambassador of Singapore to the United Nations, is famous amongst the International Relations community for his contribution to a 1993 Foreign Affairs Reader on the topic of Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations thesis. Mahbubani noted at this time that whilst the US population had increased by 41 percent since 1960, violent crime had risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent, and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. As the iPod generation, raised in a time of even more pronounced individualism, reaches the age of majority and beyond, the future of the American family has perhaps never been so precarious. Obama has already called for a return to more selfless and holistic parenting; he will need to confront the broader cultural malaise which excessive individualism has borne in contemporary America.

5. Urban America is not sustainable in the 21st century

American cities are famous for their clusters of skyscrapers, gridlock and crime; what they are much less known for is the amount of physical space they occupy. In 2007, US cities occupied nine out of the top ten global ranking places for the largest cities as measured by land area. These included not just metropolitan areas in excess of ten million people such as Los Angeles (4,320 square kilometres) and New York (8,683 square kilometres), but Dallas/Fort Worth (3,644 square kilometres), Houston (3,355 square kilometres) and Detroit (3,267 square kilometres), all of which have populations of around four million people or under. By comparison, London, England comprises a mere 1,623 square kilometres and the capital of Germany, Berlin, a mere 984 square kilometres.

The typical US city, with its suburban sprawl, strip mall shopping developments and complete inaccessibility in the absence of the automobile, is already an anachronism from an era of cheap oil and environmental insensitivity. It has to be made walkable and cyclable; fast, frequent, clean and safe public transportation must be at the centre of any transport strategy; and it has to be based on the principle of compact, mixed-use development so that people are within short distances from local amenities. Change is already afoot in this area in the shape of projects such as the development of 750 acres of vacant land in Knoxville into densely-populated communities linked by bikeway, Denver's two new light rail lines and the conversion of abandoned railway tracks in Xenia, Ohio into public walkways, but there remains an incalculable amount to be done to reconfigure America's cities for the present.

6. America is a religious country which is spiritually deficient

The United States is a country in which references to the divine are never far from the public domain, despite the constitutional separation between church and state. However, in recent years, the religious right, particularly but not exclusively certain evangelical denominations, have seriously maligned the name of religion per se through the propagation of an ideology that cloaks a belief in extreme free market economics, rampant xenophobia and a near-complete disregard for the natural environment and the rights of other nations in the mantle of patriotic Christianity.

The result of this is that people of all faiths and none have come to identify religion with a specific type of Christian fundamentalism. This has been disastrous for the spiritual state of the nation. Obama, a man of profound Christian belief with Muslim antecedents and contemporaries in his own family, can perhaps more than anyone set the tone for an American religious discourse which is characterised by love and compassion; in so doing, he can enable spiritual values to play the role that they need to in what is a time of severe social and economic crisis.

7. America is a country that needs to relearn the value of soft power

Not so long ago, it was generally accepted that American popular culture, particularly its movies and popular music, was unrivalled. However, this is manifestly now not the case. American cinema is going through a phase of producing movies that satisfy no one but marketing and merchandising executives: witness the proliferation of endless sequels and romantic comedies devoid of romance at a time when Korean, German and Indian cinema are producing original films with mass appeal. Meanwhile, the main message to be gleaned from any standard contemporary American pop music video is summed up in the memorable mantra of Curtis James Jackson III, the East Coast rapper with the apposite moniker of 50 Cent: 'Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

These are not narratives which much of the rest of humanity, or even substantial sections of America's own population, find truly inspiring. Yet the culture of a nation is one of its biggest assets, and a vital determinant in how it is perceived by the rest of the world. By contrast, Barack Obama's own narrative, one which Hollywood itself couldn't conjure up, has captivated the world. If Obama can be the catalyst for an American renaissance, then that will be one of the biggest achievements of his presidency.

8. America is sitting on a mental health time bomb

It is by now common knowledge that over forty-five million Americans are currently not covered by any health insurance, in stark contrast to the healthcare regimes prevalent in many other industrial and post-industrial nations that have attained universal or near universal coverage for their populations. What is much less well-known is the prodigious extent of mental illness within the general population of the United States. Each generation of Americans born in the 20th century suffered from depression to a greater degree than the previous one, and from 1945 to the mid-1990s, the overall rate of depression more than doubled, with the severity and frequency of depression also intensifying.

Around one in 10 Americans filter their lives through anti-depressants; it is estimated that approximately 15 percent of children in the US are on prescribed psychotropic drugs. The United States consumes around 80 percent of the world's Ritalin, which is given to children who are diagnosed as suffering from ADHD. If the US is to avoid partial mental collapse within the next generation, the issue of psychiatric disorders must be holistically addressed.

9. America is in need of role models

One of the more interesting refrains of recent years is that America is seriously lacking role models, people whom can be looked up to provide an example of how to conduct oneself. And it is difficult to argue with this: a scan of the popular press in the US will show celebrities, especially young ones, leaping from dysfunctional relationship to dysfunctional relationship, periodically winding up in jail, rehab or both, and losing any semblance of moral integrity they might once have possessed.

Barack Obama, as the leader of the nation, is in a hugely influential position. As someone who overcame alcohol and drug use in high school -something which he has openly and remorsefully stated as his "greatest moral failing" - to work with and for the underprivileged in community projects, build his family, and ascend to the highest political office in the land with a great deal of dignity, intelligence, and unpretentious religious faith, he is himself a remarkable paradigm. Obama can consciously set the ethical tone for the United States, for the moment at least, from a place of authority. He should grasp this opportunity with both hands. In doing so, he might just create a psychocultural space for virtue.

10. America is no longer alone at the top

Arguably the greatest challenge that Obama will face is that of leading the country into a new era of multilateralism where America plays a key, but not the key, role in the international system. As much as many people within (and some outside) the United States may struggle to accept this, the fact is that a country that only a few years ago needed a new category to be invented for it - that of "hyperpower," as popularised by former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine - is hugely unlikely to be able to continue to play the preeminent role in world affairs in the manner in which it has done since the end of the Cold War.

Partly this will be because financial constraints will put immense pressure to reduce what is a truly gargantuan military budget: the $668.6 billion allocated by Congress in 2008 represented approximately 50 percent of the total planetary military outlay, a proportion that is virtually the dictionary definition of unsustainable.

However, long before the term "credit crunch" entered the vernacular, the 21st century was forecast as being the Asian Century, and there is little to suggest that there has been a basic divergence from this trajectory. The earth-shattering economic growth rates being recorded in China, as well as the more moderate rates of expansion being posted in India, point the way to a future which is at least as much shaped by Beijing and New Delhi as by Washington, D.C. Add in other competing economic blocs - an ever-expanding Eurozone, South-East Asia, possibly even Latin America (led by Brazil and Mexico) and Russia - and it is clear that the US is going to be one player amongst many.

The key question, therefore, is not whether the United States will have to readjust to a new international environment, but whether it does so successfully. If Obama can rebuild fractured alliances, attract inward investment into the United States, lay a sledgehammer to the more costly aspects of the military-industrial complex and reform the resource-starved public education system to significantly raise the standards recorded in schools across the county, then the US can continue to play a massive and highly influential role in the world. If not, then as a nation the United States may end up replicating the performances of its soccer team at the World Cup: solid, occasionally successful, but a medium-sized fish in a very large pond.

To conclude, then, Barack Hussein Obama, the forty-fourth President of the United States of America, faces a vast array of huge challenges, challenges so deep and wide that they make fixing an economy ripped to shreds and correcting the $3 trillion bloodbath in Iraq appear positively manageable. To successfully solve at least some of these puzzles, he will need to resemble a latter-day Steve Rogers, a fictional American citizen who in the comic books of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby was transformed into Captain America, an ordinary man who possessed no superhuman qualities per se but still managed to be the saviour of his nation. If Obama wins through, America will have no need of any other superhero.

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Asad Yawar

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