The enormity of the challenge

"Now the hard part" writes Peter Baker in today's New York Times. Sure enough. It's never too soon to be reminded that Barack Obama is just this guy, you know? But it doesn't take Baker two paragraphs to completely misconstrue the enormity of the challenge facing the next president:

WASHINGTON -- No president since before Barack Obama was born has ascended to the Oval Office confronted by the accumulation of seismic challenges awaiting him. Historians grasping for parallels point to Abraham Lincoln taking office as the nation was collapsing into Civil War, or Franklin D. Roosevelt arriving in Washington in the throes of the Great Depression.

The task facing Mr. Obama does not rise to those levels, but that these are the comparisons most often cited sobers even Democrats rejoicing at their return to power. On the shoulders of a 47-year-old first-term senator, with the power of inspiration yet no real executive experience, now falls the responsibility of prosecuting two wars, protecting the nation from terrorist threat and stitching back together a shredded economy.

Doesn't rise to those levels? I beg to differ. Yes, the Civil War threatened the political future of the United States and the Great Depression threatened the health and economic wellbeing of its people. But you don't have to exaggerate the problems posed by the banking collapse and two wars to find the hole in Baker's case. Climate change threats the population of the entire planet, and doing something about it dwarfs the challenges of anything an American president has faced so far.

Baker only makes a fleeting reference to climate change later in his essay, and then only as an example of an issue on which Obama risks alienating his liberal base if we works with Republicans on it. From where I sit it isn't Republicans he should worry about, it's Democrats in places like Virginia where support for non-starters like "clean coal" still hold sway. But that's not the point. The point is addressing climate change will require:

  • Changing a financial system based on growth with to a steady-state economy
  • Replacing the dogma of unfettered capitalism with a heavy regulatory environment, a job George W. Bush is still trying to make more difficult even now
  • Convincing Americans to give up their love affair with the private automobile in favor of public transportation
  • Wresting control of industrial society from the hands of the petroleum transnationals

The list goes on.

All this explains why The Onion's short take on the election results are perhaps more enlightening than anything in the New York Times: "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job." Obama will have to be better than Lincoln and Roosevelt put together because we need to start figuring out a way out of this mess now. We can't wait until his second term.

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It may surprise you that I voted for Obama. While I strongly disagree with your list of the challenges facing Obama and our nation I agree that he will be up against a daunting array of issues including two wars.

While we are both likely to be disappointed in the coming months and years by some of Obama's actions I think you are in store for some very serious disillusionment.

Do you really expect Obama two embrace a "steady state" economic model? What do you think Warren Buffet, one of Obama's economic advisers, would say about that idea?

You're answer to economic recession is a "heavy regulatory environment"? Yeah, more buerocratic impediments and greater governmental control is just what is needed to reinvigorate the US economy.

The automobile is responsible for the greatest leap in personal freedom in US history and the automobile industry has been a source of jobs to bring people into the middle class more than any other industry. Of course you want to destroy that. I doubt Obama shares your vision on this one either.

Whatever influence "petroleum transnationals" have on industrial society stems from the fact that petroleum has been the fuel that has propelled the greatest increase in personal wealth and freedom in human history. Only a serious carbon-phobe would be blind to that fact.

I voted for Obama because I think he is an intelligent and pragmatic man that has a realistic grasp of the problems facing this nation. I'm hoping his rhetoric on climate change will be tempered by the realization that the US economy depends on cheap and abundant energy not fanciful pretences based on "green" political ideology.

I guess time will tell which one of us wasted our vote.

Lance lets hope you and others like you, see past your rhetoric.

Pet peeve time... you mean "emormousness," not "enormity." "Enormity" is used when you want to call attention to the extreme wickedness of something, such as the enormity of a torturer's cruelty.

I cringed like hell when I heard Senator Obama use the word in a speech. He's otherwise very good with words and it really ruined the speech for me.

By speedwell (not verified) on 05 Nov 2008 #permalink

More on topic... I work in the oil industry, and most of the engineers and managers I work with are fully aware that our company (we produce oil well equipment, among other things) can't be completely dependent on petroleum for our future survival. All successful enterprises prepare to zig when the world zags. We even have a group working on alternative uses for our equipment, such as geothermal energy.

I'm kind of tired of shortsighted, self-appointed apologists for the energy industry talking like we are only kept alive by an IV running from the oil well straight into our bloodstream. It just isn't the case. Diversify, diversify, like they say about any investment or business.

By speedwell (not verified) on 05 Nov 2008 #permalink

Lance: If I could have voted, I would also have chosen Obama for his intelligence. What I think needs to be done and what Obama might do are two separate things.

Speedwell: I suggest you read what Merriam Webster has to say about "enormity":

usage Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size. They insist on enormousness for this meaning, and would limit enormity to the meaning "great wickedness.' Those who urge such a limitation may not recognize the subtlety with which enormity is actually used. It regularly denotes a considerable departure from the expected or normal they awakened; they sat up; and then the enormity of their situation burst upon them. "How did the fire start?" -- John Steinbeck. When used to denote large size, either literal or figurative, it usually suggests something so large as to seem overwhelming.

Lance: "Of course you want to destroy (the domestic automobile industry)."

The present evidence would seem to support the view that leaving the current crop of executives in charge of the industry is the most efficient route toward its destruction.

IOW, when it comes to libertarian economics, what part of "completely discredited" don't you understand, Lance? Even Greenspan finally figured that one out.

And "the US economy depends on cheap and abundant energy."

It's time for you to look up "cargo cult" and consider its application to present circumstances, Lance.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 05 Nov 2008 #permalink

The present evidence would seem to support the view that leaving the current crop of executives in charge of the industry is the most efficient route toward its destruction.

Sadly there is some truth to that statement, but this snappy answer ignores the fact that the auto industry is hardly an example of laissez-faire "libertarian economics". It is already one of the most heavily regulated industries in the US. Only a true believer in "statist" economics would claim that the answer to its problems lie in further regulation.

It's time for you to look up "cargo cult" and consider its application to present circumstances, Lance.

Thanks for the suggestion. I had a contextual understanding of the expression "cargo cult" but hadn't checked the origin of the term. I think you mean the commonly used idiom meaning, a group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance, rather than the formal meaning that relates to indigenous cultures adopting the superficial appearances of technologically advanced visitors into their rituals in the hope that the material wealth of the more advanced culture will be bestowed upon them by their deities.

You made this remark in response to my comment about the US economy being dependent on cheap and abundant energy.

The industrial revolution was powered at first by coal but the last century has been the "age of petroleum". This cheap and abundant resource has lifted the living standard and extended the life expectancy of the average American far above their pre-industrial levels. Do you seriously dispute this mundane and rather obvious fact? Or is it your contention that the industrial revolution itself was a bad thing for humanity?

Perhaps you dispute the fact that economic growth is a good thing as James seems to imply with his reference to a "steady state" economy. This misanthropic viewpoint is the luxury of eco-snobs that have everything they need to live a comfortable and prosperous life but wish to deny people of lesser means, and those in developing countries, these same advantages all in the name of some hair shirt "green" philosophy.

It is my sincere hope that president elect Obama has a somewhat more realistic understanding of what underpins the US economy than the ideologically fanciful and disastrously misguided proposals espoused by Mr. Hrynynshyn.

Lance: "This cheap and abundant resource has lifted the living standard and extended the life expectancy of the average American far above their pre-industrial levels. Do you seriously dispute this mundane and rather obvious fact?"

Not at all. What I object to is the failure to recognize that circumstances are changing.

I think the economy had better become steady-state in terms of resources, which means that we will have to rely on technological advances for any growth.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 07 Nov 2008 #permalink

This is Hell & High water...set to probably arrive at your door step soon...lets hope mighty America can help these poor destitute people who don't appear to have much future and hope.

'We are going to disappear one day'
This year four hurricanes hit Haiti, leaving 800 dead and a country drowning. Photographer Gideon Mendel waded waist-high through mud to bear witness to an ecological disaster that will only get worse

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/08/haiti-hurricanes

"The whole country is facing an ecological disaster," said the prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis. "We cannot keep going on like this. We are going to disappear one day. There will not be 400, 500 or 1,000 deaths. There are going to be a million deaths."

Lance: "This cheap and abundant resource has lifted the living standard and extended the life expectancy of the average American far above their pre-industrial levels. Do you seriously dispute this mundane and rather obvious fact?"

Not at all. What I object to is the failure to recognize that circumstances are changing.

I think the economy had better become steady-state in terms of resources, which means that we will have to rely on technological advances for any growth.