A Powerless Obama’s “First Test”

They’re getting impatient out there in the outside world for Obama – real impatient. Last week’s attacks in Mumbai only made this situation worse, to the point that India’s crisis has somehow become Barack Obama’s crisis. This we read even in the normally-sober Financial Times Deutschland, in an article by Washington correspondent Sabine Muscat: “Evil prophecy for Obama.” The lede: “He is not yet president. And still the attacks in India are the first test of the foreign-policy man Barack Obama.”

In truth, this “Barack Obama’s first foreign policy test” has been a red-hot label looking for something to which to affix itself ever since he won the election, if not even before. For one thing, remember the remarks on the campaign-trail by Joe Biden – comments apparently not particularly welcomed by the Obama campaign – about how there surely would occur some international crisis early in the new administration, one deliberately engineered to test the new president’s resolve. As Muscat points out, this “evil prophecy” was also a line White House press spokesperson Dana Perino was pushing – for obvious partisan purpose – just before the election, and it was certainly part of John McCain’s own pitch, implicitly if not explicitly. In these early-transition days, then, it would not have taken much of an unpleasant nature, happening anywhere in the world, to turn into “Obama’s first foreign challenge,” with all eyes swiveling to Chicago to see what he intended to do about it.

And the eyes all swivel to Chicago because there are ever-fewer reasons, when something like this happens, to look to what is supposed to be the official American reaction-center, namely the White House. George W. Bush moved awfully slow even to acknowledge the Mumbai massacres, Muscat maintains, as silly turkey-pardoning pictures still dominated the official White House homepage well into the course of the attacks. Bush similarly lagged far behind the “Office of the President-Elect” in finally coming up with a reaction, namely calling up the Indian premier Manmohan Singh to offer CIA aid in investigating the attackers. The overall impression to the outside world was one of Bush as, in Muscat’s phrase, a “lame chicken.” (That’s apparently a “lame duck” in German, but one that’s really, really lame.)

The silly thing is, though, that Obama is not in fact President of the United States, that he will not become that until January 20, 2009. There is really very little that he can do, even as Americans are again reminded, in Muscat’s words, of “how quickly their own land can be the target of violence,” as apparently heightened security measures were imposed on New York City’s subway system because of some terror-warning. (And here again we have the Northeast Corridor-centric view of what is supposedly happening through all 50 states that foreign correspondents like Sabine Muscat have so much trouble escaping. Were residents of Butte, Montana, say, recently reminded of this vulnerability as well – or even the denizens of LA?) He has not even formally unveiled his team of national security advisers, although the top names are pretty much known (Robert Gates remains at Defense, Hillary Clinton at the State Department, etc.). Of course, he has now presented his economic team – he completed that task last week – and the logic of giving that precedence remains clear to all in light of America’s, and the world’s, serious economic troubles.

We should have to wait no more than a day or two into this upcoming week to find out the composition of the Obama national security team, anyway. In the meantime, articles such as Muscat’s merely represent the latest outpouring of the world-wide frustration over the curious agenda prescribed by the US Constitution (as amended) that stipulates this delay of two-and-a-half months before a newly-elected president can take assume power. Gruesome incidents such as occured last week in India only serve to heighten the world-wide worry that things are falling apart just too fast, and seemingly on multiple fronts, for the US and the world to have the luxury of waiting that long for the new administration. Yes, it’s also true that the fiasco of the election of 2000 warns us against mandating a take-over by a new administration that follows too closely on the heels of the election (although many would assert that the elongated recount-and-appeal process that occurred then still did not produce the correct result, even with all the time that it was allowed).

An optimal solution – at least for 2008 – would be the one recently advanced by New York Times columnist Gail Collins: Bush should simply resign, together with Cheney, so that Nancy Pelosi would take over as head of government until Inauguration Day and so enable that federal government machinery immediately to start implementing required measures, in close coordination with the President-Elect. But not only will that not happen – if only because George W. Bush utterly lacks the humility and true love of country to ever do such a thing – but it also should not happen (and here I merely cite Collins’ reasoning), if only because of the possibility such a maneuver would open up to some misstep which would see George W. Bush gone but Dick Cheney still remaining as the American Chief Executive.

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