President Roosevelt faced the Great Depression during his first term and Second World War during his third term. President Obama will face simultaneously - upon entering the White House – the most severe economic recession since Roosevelt and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as World War Three against Islamic terrorism and a series of additional severe challenges and threats domestically and internationally.
Just like previous presidents, Obama would prefer to be preoccupied with the home front, which is burdened by high-level pessimism and uncertainty, exacerbated political polarization and fear of further economic deterioration. However, the international arena will not grant Obama even a single day of grace. The Clinton presidency documents that a dovish worldview does not immunize US presidents against global rivals and enemies.
On February 26, 1993, during Clinton's first month in office, Bin-Laden terrorized the Twin Towers: Six civilians were murdered, 1,000 were injured and 50,000 evacuated. On October 3, 1993, the bodies of 18 US servicemen were dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, in spite of Clinton's commitment to reverse Bush Sr.’s policy and pull out of Somalia, as reiterated during clandestine talks held with terror lord Aideed.
Antagonists and opponents of the US will be quick to test the resolve and decision-making capabilities of the president-elect, who lacks national security and international relations experience. They wish to find out whether his presidency will be an opportunity to advance their strategic goals and whether he is a real – or a paper – tiger.
Islamic terrorists will attempt to humiliate the US into a swift Somalia-style evacuation of Iraq, despite Obama's own evacuation plans, and a similar retreat from Afghanistan. Iran might escalate its subversive activities in the Persian Gulf in general and in Iraq in particular, intensify the arming and incitement of Hizbullah and Hamas in Lebanon and in Gaza, and hasten the acquisition of nuclear capabilities.
Syria may exploit the inherent instability of Lebanon, in order to reassert itself militarily in its "Western Province," and test US commitment to Lebanon's sovereignty. Palestinian terrorism could expand its operations, with the aim of clarifying Obama's willingness to pressure Israel against "disproportionate response."
Will North Korea employ the US transition of power, in order to violate – once again – its commitments? Will Putin leverage the Georgia precedent in order to reassert Soviet-style Imperialism? Will China join the "welcoming party," testing Obama's adherence to agreements with Taiwan? Will Gadaffi – who was deterred by the fate of Saddam Hussein – revert to terrorism? Will President Obama demonstrate that he does not blink first?
Thorny field of economic problemsThe aggravation of global violence, along with the US geography, natural resources, human resources, national security and economic interests and core American vision and values, clarify why the US constitutes an indispensable superpower, why presidential decisions possess domestic and global implications, and why Obama will have to raise simultaneously the flags of national security and socio-economy.
Obama will not be received at the White House by a Rose Garden, but rather, by a thorny field of economic problems. He will be inaugurated on January 20, 2009, in the midst of the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s: Manufacturing activity is at a 26 year low, private consumption has taken a serious dive, banking credit is heavily constrained, a collapse of credit companies may be around the corner, the state of social security and health insurance is bleak and the wave of bankruptcy is gaining momentum.
Obama will have to decide how to spend the $700 billion bailout package, and whether such a package, and additional ones, constitutes water or fuel for the economic fire. How will such packages – which inflate national debt and nationalize a substantial element of the US economy - be financed? Will Obama raise or lower taxes? Should banking regulation be expanded to other investment institutions? How will the US be freed of oil dependency? How will Obama achieve his socio-economic plans without overly stretching the already thin economy?
Obama will, supposedly, benefit from automatic support by the Democrat-controlled Congress. However, the Clinton precedent proves that separation of powers is stronger than party loyalty. In 1992, Clinton was elected alongside a substantial Democratic majority in both Chambers. However, his determination to ram his (Hillary's) health reform plan down the throat of Congress backfired, and led to the 1994 Republican revolution.
President Obama's victory may be the most impressive since 1964, but he is facing the most awesome challenges and threats since the 1930s.
Yoram Ettinger is a Mideastern and American affairs expert