Monday, March 30, 2009

Greater expectations

Tomorrow, hours from now, President Barack Obama leaves Washington for his first overseas trip since assuming office, making his exit as the House and Senate begin to debate his record-setting trillion-dollar budget.

The president flies to London a day after effectively firing General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner and putting GM and Chrysler on notice that the automobile industry needs a serious retooling, and fast. Tonight, the heads of the banking industry are wondering how numbered their own days might be.

And there’s still a strong domestic wind at his back. Jon Cohen and Dan Balz report in Tuesday’s Washington Post:
”The number of Americans who believe that the nation is headed in the right direction has roughly tripled since Barack Obama's election, and the public overwhelmingly blames the excesses of the financial industry, rather than the new president, for turmoil in the economy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

At this early stage in his presidency, Obama continues to benefit from a broadly held perception that others should bear the bulk of responsibility for the severe economic problems that confront his administration. Americans see plenty of offenders, but only about a quarter blame the president and his team for an economy that's in the ditch.”
Obama heads to Europe having sent both a message for consumption at home and a message for the leaders of the G-20 he’ll huddle with starting on Tuesday: He’s serious about transforming the global economy, starting with his nation’s own. The G-20 summit may well be seen as President Obama’s bid to build his own coalition of the willing to fight the new stealth enemy: a corrosive global economic downturn that plays no favorites. Not everyone is convinced he has the answer.

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French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in what amounts to a plain bid for the economic leadership of the EU (never mind that the Czech Republic is the lead EU nation this time in the rotation), have resisted calls from Washington for monster stimulus packages matching their American counterparts.

The New York Times reported Monday:
“They have found common cause as well in a call for much tougher global regulation of financial markets, putting the blame for the crisis directly on the “Anglo-Saxons” — the United States and Britain, whose free-market practices, not widely copied in continental Europe, are viewed by France and Germany as not sufficiently disciplined by the state.”
Obama, that fresh electric face, that darling of the continent when he was in Europe last July, is coming back. With economies in turmoil, and much of his predecessor’s global damage still unrepaired, his reception in this grim spring may be accompanied by a chill in the air — one that’s got nothing to do with the weather.

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Leave it to Team Obama to call on the formidable rhetorical gifts and the power of a magnetic personality to help sway public opinion. The Wall Street Journal, quoting various officials, reported Monday that, in addition to the official work of the summit of the nations representing 85 percent of the world’s wealth, the president plans to hold a town-hall style event at an arena in Strasbourg, France. The White House is also pursuing a location in Prague as the site of the first foreign policy speech of Obama’s young presidency, the Journal reported.

The president's planned trip to Ankara and Istanbul may have resonance in the Middle East. That leg of the trip will continue Obama’s outreach to Muslim nations (even though Turkey, a nation of secular, internationalist rhythms, may well not be comfortable being identified solely on the basis of its Muslim-majority status). Obama will apparently encounter a Turkish population that reveres him, and a government that’s solidly in the NATO camp, despite an enduring resentment about Turkey not being admitted to the European Union.

Of the three high-profile meetings Obama is to attend, the meeting of NATO leaders and officials in Strasbourg on April 4 may go the furthest in giving the world some of what, in years to come, will undoubtedly be known as the Obama doctrine, a policy already as much a product of inheritance as of initiative. We can expect the thorny issue of NATO’s commitment of troops to Afghanistan to come up; the United States, still stretched to near the breaking point in Iraq, is on the record as wanting more participation from NATO European allies.

The German daily Der Tagesspiegel reported Sunday that U.S. national security adviser James Jones, pre-emptively taking the heat off the boss, said the United States expects more troops in Afghanistan, at least during the Afghan election season, in August.

“Whether these troops stay longer or head home straight after the elections, is another matter,” Jones said in an interview published Sunday.

Jones said it was “self-evident” that the United States would welcome increased deployments from NATO sources. “From the fact that the USA has not made public detailed demands to its allies, one cannot deduce that the request does not exist.”

Translation: “We shouldn’t have to ask y’all to dance.” But for most nations in the G-20, a place on or near the sidelines is a safe place to be. Whether Obama’s proven gifts as a negotiator and emerging gifts as a statesman will be enough to prompt such military commitments in this economy remains to be seen.

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“What a difference an election makes. “[T]he tidal wave of expectation and enthusiasm that Obama rode into the White House is giving way to a more cautious reception in Europe as the administration's policies begin to take shape,” The Guardian’s Ian Traynor reported Monday.

Protests in London have already happened, in anticipation of Obama’s arrival. About 35,000 demonstrators rallied in Hyde Park on Saturday.

The Christian Science Monitor reported Sunday that London police and authorities are bracing for protests of a ferocity that matches the outrage over the financial markets — especially that of the United States. One possible flash point, the Monitor reported, may be an event called “G-20 Meltdown,” an event intended to begin art the Bank of England, with groups converging “for spontaneous live music, street theater, and the hanging of effigies of bankers.”

The Monitor reported that one of the event’s organizers, Chris Knight, was suspended last week from his post in the anthropology department at the University of East London after telling the BBC that real bankers could be “hanging from lampposts.”

And Der Tagesspiegel reported Monday that German Interior Minister Schaubel has ordered a crackdown on “camps” of “hometown faithful German Youth,” whose style, military training and hard-right nationalist doctrine recall that that of the Nazis. Schaubel found the groups in violation of clause 3 of the German Associations Act, which permits the state to ban a group if it believes its activity are contrary to the national interest.

You can debate the timing of this crackdown — the day before G-20 leaders arrive in London, Merkel among them, and a few days before the focus moves to Berlin. But it’s clear: despite the expected pageantry, Europe will show its restive side.

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If there was ever a time for Barack Obama’s conciliatory magic, this is it. But the man astride the world’s largest and most dramatically sputtering economic engine is in a game with the most serious stakes, for his presidency, his nation, and the world. Much will depend on his ability to persuade the G-20 leaders of the interdependent aspects of this crisis, and the ways in which the burden is shared — either by design, now, or by tragic happenstance later.

The expected challenges to his economic agenda from the House and Senate already complicate his efforts overseas; it will be a defining challenge for him to convincingly make the case that his economic strategy is the ideal solution for the world when his own government wrangles over its merits as he speaks.

And then there are the other pressing situations beyond the economy and Afghanistan. Selling the world on a new economic vision would be challenge enough in peace time, but because of renewed concerns with events in Pakistan; rumblings in North Korea; the old divisions with the Iranian Republic; and the flashpoints between Israel and the people of the Palestinian territories, the nations that may be most pivotal to President Obama’s success beyond the G-20 summit aren’t even part of the G-20. The global interdependence he’ll be selling this week doesn’t end with Europe; its scope is more than purely economic.

The young man who wowed them at the blackjack table last summer is coming back to the casino; this time he gets no comps. This time he’s playing with the house money.

Image credits: Obama top: Still from video. Obama in German: Der Tagesspiegel. Obama poll results: Washington Post/ABC News. Obama tour map: The Wall Street Journal. Protest parade: Still from Oxfam March 28 video of Put People First G20 rally.


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