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A week after

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Last week was all Obama. The focus then was on the Inauguration and the build up to that momentous day. We all looked at the spectacle and gloried in it, but what really stood out amidst the pomp and ceremony was the new President’s vision expressed in an address that repudiated much of what George Bush stood for. Obama was signalling a new direction. It did not take him long to begin that journey as he immediately ‘dust’ himself off and began efforts to push his country on that new path, one that he hoped would allow it to regain the respect of much of the world. Even the language reflected what he was about.{{more}} Clearly, there was no talk of ‘axis of evil’ and no sense that he was looking for terrorists under every bush. In fact, he held out a hand of friendship to the Republican Party and to people all over the world, including those considered foes of America. America, he said, “is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity”. He also turned the eight years of George Bush on its head by declaring that “we are ready to lead once more”. He reminded not only his American audience but the rest of the world that was glued into his Inauguration that America was “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus- and non-believers”. A powerful statement!

That was the language, but he jumped immediately into the task he had pledged to undertake. George Mitchell, whom he appointed Middle Eastern envoy, was sent to the Middle East, to listen, the President stated. America did not have all the answers and needed to listen to people in the region. His first major interview was with an Arab news channel Al-Arabiya where he declared to the Arab world that the US was not their enemy. He ordered the closure of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and gave his people a year to complete the process. It will be interesting to see how much further he goes in dealing with the Cuban issue. Will he eventually move to end the embargo and will he return Guantanamo to their rightful owners, the Cuban people?

Torture is to be no more, as the Army Field Manual is to be used as a guide for interrogating suspects. Secret prisons were ordered closed. The rule prohibiting the use of American funds for International Family Planning Clinics that promote abortion was rescinded. Obama’s number one priority is, however, fixing the economy. He had already fashioned an economic package that he hopes will stimulate the economy and bring it back on stream. In doing that he sought to ensure bipartisan support. He has the numbers in Congress to see it through, but he wants to live up to his pledge to change the politics of Washington. He realises also that the best guarantee of a workable solution is to have bipartisan support of his economic package. As I write this article, he was meeting with Senate Republicans to seek their support. He realised that this was going to be a huge, if not impossible task, as the Republicans who were overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate appear to be looking for a fight, despite the strong support he holds from the American people.

Obama is confusing many. It is felt that he is governing from the Centre, but as one commentator suggested, that would mean that he is redefining the centre. Many Republicans are ideologically opposed to a lot of what the new President stands for. Obama stated clearly that at issue is not whether Government is big or small but if it works. He wants to speak to America’s perceived foes. There are indeed high expectations of Obama, not only that he can take America out of the economic depression, but change its relationship with the rest of the world and regain the respect it once enjoyed. It is not going to be easy, America’s politics being what it is. Some of the expectations will obviously not be met for what many want is a complete reversal of what George W stood for, but Georgie left him an economic legacy that is daunting to say the least. (What I found interesting is that the former President felt that it was just unfortunate that the economic crisis happened during his tenure, not realising that he was a major contributor to it.).

As Obama seeks to jump start the economy, the Republicans are fretting over many aspects of his recovery plan. But while they procrastinate, the economy is going further into decline with many more companies continuing to lay off workers. America will eventually recover, and there are mechanisms in place to cushion some of the worst effects. I make this point because this brings me back home. There is no doubt that we will be seriously affected. We have heard of businesses that have already laid off workers. I know, too, of one small hotel that is already finding itself in dire straits, and there is the feeling that we have not as yet begun to experience the real effects of the crisis. Here then is our challenge. What can we put in place to deflect the worst of the effects and to keep our economy on the move? Do we need a bipartisan approach? If so, how do we get it?

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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