by Mitch Potter – The Toronto Star
TO: PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
FROM: THE WORLD
We know you are not quite there yet. Whatever. The rest of the planet now has concluded you will be. Your honeymoon suite awaits with a euphoria that spans the globe.
A word of warning, however, before you snuggle in for that first group hug. There are bedbugs. And they bite.
A year of rising expectations is about to fall on your shoulders, with a thundering weight many now predict will buckle you.
Here in London, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian nailed the point, announcing the end of the bull market in Barack.
“Sell Obamas now,” Jenkins advised his readers. “They are overpriced and the forward market has gone crazy. If he becomes president, the bubble will burst, I guess in the spring of next year.”
Your era will begin with some immediate international advantages, it is true. Not least, the sheer glee that your name is not George.
“The first thing the world needs from America is the absence of George W. Bush,” is how François Heisbourg, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Studies, framed things in an interview with the Star. “That guarantees a tremendous advantage. And for Obama – I assume it will be him – it will be all the greater.”
How bloated are the expectations? On the waterfront in Barcelona today, artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada and an army of volunteers are shaping a mountain of sand, earth and gravel into a giant portrait of you. This is not a joke.
“The piece is ephemeral, it is not designed to last,” Rodriguez-Gerada told the Daily Telegraph, explaining the artwork, titled “Expectation,” is intended not as praise for you but rather, as a commentary on how desperately the world lusts for the idea of you.
“Who knows if the euphoria surrounding Obama will fade away like sand or lead to something more permanent?”
Many anticipate your first step will be to reboot America’s conversation with the world. A kind of “great cleansing,” in the words of Charlie Beckett, director of POLIS, the journalism think-tank at London School of Economics.
“Right now there is an enormous residual ‘turning off’ when Americans speak. The feeling is that during the Bush era, ‘They caused mayhem, they ignored the world, they didn’t listen to us – so why should we listen to them.’
“Now the conversation will renew. Which is tremendously important for the world. Especially for those of us who believe in America’s place in the world as a force for democracy and freedom.”
That, of course, is the easy part, given your deft oratorical skills. But the going is almost certainly going to get messy soon thereafter, when talk collides with realpolitik. As Heisbourg notes, “America’s national interest is not going to change just because the president changes.”
We got a sense of this in Berlin earlier this summer. Up there on stage, all you could see was a throng of 200,000 people chanting your name. But where we were, down in the crowd, we felt a distinct chill when you spoke of a stepped-up effort in war-weary Afghanistan – a conflict that Germans have just about had their fill of. And the rest of Europe is not far behind.
But Afghanistan may in fact prove the least of your worries, given the cluster of global crises on your morning-after to-do list. Global economic meltdown, far and away, trumps them all. Yet the interconnected issues of climate change and energy burn close behind.
Add to that the whole series of other urgent global challenges, from bioethics to migration to nuclear proliferation, and the task ahead wildly exceeds the bounds of a single brain, even one as well-appointed as yours.
Where to begin? Many of your unofficial global advisers suggest the only way forward is a Herculean act of multitasking. You need to dispatch individual teams on every one of these problems, each with marching orders to map how the United States can lead in crafting – and crucially,obeying – a new global rulebook.
Take solace in two important facts as you go forward. First, know that for now, at least, your name is the gold standard of global goodwill. People want you to succeed. And, most importantly, know that however ridiculous the expectations may be, nobody truly expects you to have the all the answers.
“One of the ways to manage unrealistic expectations is to recognize that the United States doesn’t have to do everything. It doesn’t have to solve all the problems. It just needs to be a constructive global player,” said Ian Goldin, director of the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford University.
Goldin, a former World Bank vice president, said the next leader’s greatest challenge would be to rise above national self-interest. To see the global forest despite the domestic trees, and to understand that what is good for the world will, ultimately, be very good for the U.S.
“It comes down to a question of accepting there will be global rules and to abide by them. The problem with a superpower is that when the world shows you the red card, do you accept the red card or do you play the global bully?” said Goldin.
“That’s why there is so much optimism today. There is a view that the United States now will not only participate very actively in establishing the rules of the game. But also they will be responsible players.”