A New American President

In traveling around the world in recent months, each time I had a private dinner with business associates I found myself being asked the same question: “Do you think America could really elect…?” Some would say “a black man,” others “a man with a middle name of Hussein,” but all seemed convinced America was so racist, so consumed with anti-Muslim hatred, that none of these things were possible.

But in America, everything is possible.

Although there were surely people who would not vote for an African-American, there were probably more who voted for Barack Obama because they saw his election as a symbol of the continuous expansion of opportunity in America.

Although there were surely some who feared the son of a Muslim man who had spent some of his youth in a Muslim country might not stand up against Islamic extremists prepared to use terror in the pursuit of their goals, there were more who saw this as a chance to show the world that in America we respect people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Americans are tired of the focus paid to such issues as race or religion; they would share with the world the letter George Washington sent to a Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid…

Now the election is over. We have a new president and some Americans who always felt excluded from our politics now feel their time has come, much as in 1960, many Roman Catholics felt the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president symbolized a new inclusiveness in the American polity.

Around the world, many favored Barack Obama. One suspects they will be disappointed. President George W. Bush was not well liked around the world so it was common to demonize him and make him the vessel for anger at American policy. They may praise Barack Obama now, but the first time he has to use American power to defend American interests, one suspects he will make enemies quickly.

For now, the problem is not half so much his enemies as his friends. It looks as if there will be a special congressional session to deal with a possible bailout for the automobile industry. President Bush will push hard for a vote on the three signed-but-not-yet-ratified free-trade agreements, those are with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama.

Under the terms with which these (and all other) free-trade agreements are negotiated, they are entitled to an up-or-down vote without amendments. This is because foreign governments would find it pointless to negotiate all the complex terms of these agreements with the administration and, in the process, make many painful tradeoffs if all those tradeoffs could then be renegotiated at the Congressional level.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, used a procedural trick to keep the free-trade agreements from coming to a vote before the election. Although the votes are there for passage, it would be a coalition of Republicans and Democrats that pass them. Within the Democratic Party, they are highly controversial.

Unions, in particular, are opposed, and Barack Obama won the election with a lot of union support.

On the other hand, minds are concentrated on economic recovery and scholars have been reminding our leaders that the Great Depression was, in part, a consequence of “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies, such as the Smoot-Hawley tariff. Virtually all economists agree that freer trade brings additional prosperity to both sides of the trade.

We may get lucky. President Bush may insist on a floor vote for these free-trade agreements if he is to sign a bailout for the auto industry — which labor also wants. Senator Obama may be happy to have these agreements passed before he takes office. We get a stimulative boost from more trade but he does not have to pick a fight with his union backers.

The last Democratic president fought for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and put together a bi-partisan coalition to pass it. But he angered some traditional supporters in the labor movement.

We don’t know where President Obama will come down on trade, but with a Kenyan father and his youth spent in Indonesia and the ethnically diverse state of Hawaii, he must be aware of the value of a trade. We will learn soon enough if he sees that value as worth fighting for.