Nice job, Mr. Obama. What now?

Henry Champ on Obama agenda

In the 1972 movie, The Candidate, the Robert Redford character, Bill McKay, is a long-shot candidate to become the senator from California.

President George W. Bush and president-elect Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House Monday, Nov. 10, 2008. ((Eric Draper/Associated Press/The White House) )

The contest has been long and bruising, and degenerated into months of  "gotcha"  politics, television attack ads, expensive billboards, and the simple slogan "For A Better Way, Bill McKay."

To everyone’s surprise, McKay wins and then, in an unforgettable last scene, pulls his campaign manager away from the victory celebration.

They escape to a small room while a horde of journalists clamour about outside. The candidate slumps into a chair and utters that now-famous line, "Marvin, what do we do now?"

Over to you, Barack

Barack Obama can’t be compared to the feckless Bill McKay, but you can clearly imagine a scenario when, on election night, the president-elect turned to someone on his staff and asked that very same question. 

There are probably only two other presidents in American history that were elected to office facing such a mess. One would be Abraham Lincoln, facing the dissolution of the republic and the other, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, looking at an economic meltdown very reminiscent of today’s situation.

Many Americans today seem to be hoping that Obama can match the success of Lincoln and  Roosevelt, but it is a perilous journey he is setting out on.

What do we do now? Here is a rough outline of the road ahead:

First task

The economy is obviously job one. Obama has promised a tax cut for the middle-class, to help stimulate the economy. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel told national television audiences on Sunday that this tax cut will not be postponed.

Emanuel also said those Americans earning more than $250,000 a year will face an immediate tax increase, which was a key Obama campaign promise.

In the short term, Obama also wants Congress to extend unemployment benefits and help states pay mounting health-care costs as the jobless ranks swell and workers lose their work-related benefits.

On Monday, during their White House meeting, Obama urged President George W. Bush  to back the rescue of Detroit’s automakers. That seems like a pretty clear message that if Bush won ‘t act now, Obama will in the new year once he actually takes office. 

He has also warned congressional lawmakers as well as those overseeing the $700-billion economic rescue program that there must be monies made available to those homeowners who are struggling to stave off foreclosure. The rescue program cannot just be aimed at Wall Street.

Obama is still a member of the Senate but he will not use that position to participate in any negotiations surrounding a new stimulus plan. He clearly wants to concentrate on his cabinet and White House appointments.

It’s a stance that keeps his hands free to deal with potentially bigger rescue efforts once he is fully in power.

On the wars

There are clear indications that within a day or two of his inauguration on Jan. 20, president Obama will call in Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Mullen will be told the Iraq mission has been changed and that Obama wants a new plan that brings American troops home within 16 months.

The only troops remaining will be those training Iraqi police and military and guarding American  assets.

The military will then be given new marching orders for Afghanistan.

There will be more American troops, a surge of sorts, for that conflict, probably in the neighbourhood of 20,000 or more.

There will be a more concentrated effort to tackle al-Qaeda and to capture Osama bin Laden.

New map

The battle map is already being redrawn to include the tribal regions of western Pakistan.

Very direct, strongly worded messages are already being delivered to Pakistan’s leadership. They say that a greater effort is expected on the part of the Pakistan military and that attacks against Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the territories must be stepped up.

Underlining these messages is the view that if you don’t do it, we will.

At the Pentagon, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the NATO effort in Afghanistan and a desire for a greater American role.

As it has been put to me, "the British and the Canadians are our buddies, the rest of the  NATO force are a waste of time."

Look for much more robust American leadership in Afghanistan, perhaps even the full assumption of command.

On the diplomatic front

With a renewed focus on Afghanistan will likely come a change in diplomatic policy.

To begin with, an Obama administration will explore talks with Iran to see if shared objectives can’t be found.

As one Pentagon official told The Washington Post recently, "as we look to the future it would  be helpful to have an interlocutor." He added, the Iranians, "don’t want Sunni extremists in charge of Afghanistan anymore than we do."

The Obama folks coming into office are questioning Washington's commitment to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

They are listening to some European and NATO officials who say the elected Karzai is ineffective and that  an assembly of tribal elders should be struck to pick the next Afghan president (and so tie these regional chieftains into to the success of the state).

What is also being explored is a policy of  reaching out to moderate Taliban leaders. Obama’s advisers told the Washington Post that the incoming president would support talks between the Afghan government and "reconcilable" Taliban.

Presumably those Taliban who engaged in such talks would find their areas would receive  infrastructure aid and construction as well as a level of self-government.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has spoken publicly about the possibility of  reconciliation saying, "at the end of the day, that’s how most wars end. That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us."

What else on the soonest list?

Expect some quick end to the nightmare of the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has  blighted American foreign policy. It will likely come at the same time as a statement that rejects the use of torture and recommits the U.S. to the international code of warfare.

An executive order will reverse several Bush initiatives, such as the restrictions on abortion counselling, which has held up much foreign aid, as well as the restrictions on funding stem-cell research.

What is still in question is how Obama will approach the three key domestic campaign issues that many felt were central to his victory: health care, energy and education.

Should he tackle them boldly from the outset, even though the federal purse is near empty? Or should he approach them incrementally in affordable stages and after more groundwork has been laid?

On the weekend, Obama finally admitted that the deteriorating economy will force a recalibration of his programs but not his commitment, suggesting, "We can’t afford to wait on moving forward. "

We will see. One campaign has just ended. Another is about to get under way.

Finally, I want to thank everyone for their kind messages last week upon my retirement. As you can see, retirement is a bit of a misnomer since I intend to continue writing this column as well as doing some other things that have been on my mind for sometime.

It is very satisfying to know of your support, I won‘t let you down.