Other nations rose, markets fell, and Obama was forced into a reactive role
The first year of the Obama administration was largely reactive. The new president and his team spent their time cleaning up the extraordinary messes left for them — the financial crisis, the Great Recession, Guantánamo, exploding deficits, Iraq, deteriorating Afghanistan and Pakistan — and attempting to tackle problems left unaddressed for far too long — climate change and energy policy, healthcare reform, immigration reform.
In that regard the agenda of President Obama’s first year was determined to a great degree by the Bush administration’s strategic reaction to a global political and economic environment that has passed now. While President Obama cannot escape the governing inheritance left to him, he can do more to discard the outdated vision and rhetorical framework that came along too, and begin to offer a much more compelling, modern and Obama-ish take on the challenges ahead and how we must meet them.
At the core of this new vision must be a strategic response to the most significant transformation taking place in the world today, what Fareed Zakaria has called the “rise of the rest.” The 20 years of liberalization and globalization that has followed the collapse of communism has brought, with extraordinary rapidity, dozens of countries and billions of people into the modern world. Their growing geopolitical and economic might is creating a radically different global environment than America faced in the 20th century, and arguably even five to 10 years ago when the Bush administration made the strategic choices Obama is wrestling with today.
The true scope of this transformation is only really becoming apparent now, and it leaves our new president with the historic opportunity, and tremendous responsibility, to craft a comprehensive strategic response to this global “new politics” of the 21st century. It will also allow him to extricate himself from the anachronistic rhetorical framework suited for another day and another president.
At the core of this new strategy might be three main governing priorities:
Challenge America to raise its game: The global economy of the 21st century will be much more competitive for our companies, workers and capital than the century just past. If America is to maintain its standard of living in the face of what will be extraordinary competition coming from China, India, Brazil, Mexico and many other countries, we will have to raise our game, try harder, invest smarter, accelerate innovation, lessen our exposure to foreign energy sources, modernize our healthcare system, continuously upgrade our skills and radically improve our public schools.
Reimagine the architecture of global governance: The rising powers and their people will want — and deserve — a seat at the global rule-making table. We’ve seen the early stages of this new era with the recent discussions about updating the IMF, the swapping of the G-20 for the G-8, and the assertiveness of India, China and other nations at the recent Copenhagen conference. The day in which the “Western powers” can call the global shots has come to an end, new arrangements will have to made, and a new and different role for America will have to be crafted. But at the same time America will have to become a much more spirited advocate for ensuring that this new global political table is one where the traditional American formula of free markets, political liberty, democracy and the rule of law is not watered down or, worse, replaced by a much less liberal global formula.
Modernize government so it can do more with less: With a huge percentage of the federal workforce hitting retirement age soon, it is an opportune time to start thinking creatively about how we can reinvent government for the digital age. Can we replace large bureaucracies with more entrepreneurialism, problem solving, leaner workforces using the extraordinarily powerful set of new digital tools available to them to deliver more for less?
Given the budgetary pressures facing this and future presidents, it would be better for America for us to plan on modernizing our government rather than cutting it, getting more value from the investment of taxpayers so that the savings can be redirected into helping Americans raise their game and meet the new competitive challenges of the 21st-century global economy. By reorienting his government around meeting the challenge of the rise of the rest, President Obama will extricate himself from the strategic orientation of a bygone era, give the nation a powerful national mission to rally around in the years ahead, and help ensure continued American prosperity and preeminence in a vastly changed world outside our shores.
Simon Rosenberg is the founder and president of the progressive think tank New Democrat Network.
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