With Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration less than a week away, and an economic collapse seemingly even closer, students are nervous to hear what challenges Obama must face and hopefully defeat.
On Tuesday, over 100 students and community members filled the Activities and Recreation Center ballroom to attend “Challenges for the President,” where a panel of UC Davis professors discussed the social, economic, legal and foreign policy issues facing the future administration.
“It may take a while to sum up the Bush presidency,” said Zeev Maoz, the moderator of the panel and political science professor. “Yet the enormity of the tasks facing the Obama administration seems to be matched only by the level of expectations.”
Kimberlee Shauman, an associate professor of sociology, spoke primarily about the tremendous income gap and resulting social stratification of American society.
“Since the 1980s, the U.S. has witnessed a rapid increase in income inequality – a return to the level of income inequality that was characteristic of the pre-Great Depression era,” she said. “Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, the distribution of income in the U.S. has gone through what is called ‘the great u-turn.‘
“I argue that this is one of the primary social challenges that faces the populace and the current administration,” she said.
She advocated significant changes to tax codes and minimum wage increases as a policy tool for income redistribution.
Alan Taylor, a professor of economics, cast a decidedly negative tone during his talk.
“We are about to head into an enormous recession; it could very well be the biggest recession we have seen since the Great Depression,” he began. “Many people in the workforce do not know what is about to hit them.“
Taylor discussed various aspects of the economic recession – the housing bubble, credit crisis, the toxic assets of financial institutions, bailouts and rising unemployment, as well as the Fed’s multi-pronged attempts to stabilize the markets.
A slurry of graphs and charts accompanied Taylor’s talk, each of which depicted colored lines trending invariably down.
“You can tell they’re banks because there’s Lehman Brothers and it’s down to zero,” Taylor explained in dark humor, referring to a graph depicting the stock prices of various international banks over time. “These losses are going up exponentially.“
Taylor concluded his talk by examining America’s place in the international economy as well as the future of its global economic leadership.
“Over the last 50 years, we’ve seen a growth of international trade and finance that has been unprecedented over economic history – there has been a lot of economic benefit from that,” he said. “But there is a problem: protectionism and isolationism is attractive right now to lots of governments around the world and their constituents.”
Taylor roundly rejected that approach, arguing instead that Obama must promote international economic cooperation to restore stability.
Legal and Constitutional Challenges
Law professor Carlton Larson was relatively optimistic, claiming that many of the legal challenges Obama faced were much simpler and easier to fix than social or economic problems.
“President-elect Obama is uniquely qualified to address these issues,” he said, noting Obama’s background as a lawyer and professor in constitutional law.
Larson discussed appointments to federal courts and the Department of Justice, addressing the unethical hiring practices of the Bush administration.
“This is relatively easy to fix [for Obama]” he said. “Just don’t do this anymore. I’m pretty confident that President Obama will … make sure that hiring is done on the basis of merit and not on the basis of political affiliation.“
He predicted similar action would be taken to correct wrongs regarding warrantless wiretapping, torture and executive privilege, saying that there would be more “realistic interpretations” than under Bush.
Foreign Policy Challenges
Professor Miroslav Nincic began his talk by asserting that foreign policy concerns were equal in weight with the economy, and that the “consequences [of failure] could be far worse.”
“We must … overcome the image of an arrogant, unilateralist country … The image of the U.S. is no longer that of the Statue of Liberty, but that of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo,” Nincic said.
Nincic also spoke briefly about the situations in Israel, Iran and North Korea.
“[We support Israel] … on the other hand, there is the fact of the immense and truly horrible suffering of the Palestinian people in the past few weeks. Somehow, [Obama] has to navigate between these two issues,” he explained regarding the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I am the first to say that if the dominant and only result had been the destruction of Hamas (for whom nobody I know has a whole lot of sympathy) … I would be the last to criticize it. But this does not seem, and does not seem to be in the process of being, the dominant result of Gaza.“
Nincic emphasized that President-elect Obama would have tremendous challenges in rebuilding America’s reputation abroad while simultaneously working in concert with other nations to maintain international stability against threats in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“I would say it’s even odds – but only even odds – that these threats will be successfully dealt with,” Nincic concluded.
Questions, Answers, and Reflections
A question-and-answer format followed; seven out of 10 audience questions were related to the economy.
“As responsible citizens,” one student asked, “should we be spending or saving?”
“Well, I’ve got an investment plan I want to sell you,” Taylor responded in jest. “I would expect most people to be moving into a savings mode, and in terms of individual and household responsibility, this probably makes a good deal of sense. In the macroeconomic sense, it leaves the question of where aggregate demand is going to come from. That’s the government’s problem.“
Students left the presentation feeling informed, if not a little frightened.
“I was impressed; it was a lot more comprehensive than I expected,” said Jamie Evans, a second-year international relations major. “[Obama] definitely needs to maintain and improve foreign relations … we are going to be inclined to be isolationist, but I really hope he resists that.“
Regina Dettmer, an undeclared first-year student, said she wished the panel had included environmental issues.
“I think that it is the most important issue right now because everything we’re doing is irreversible in terms of the environment,” she said. “But I was really scared by the predictions of the economy; I hadn’t seen those before. I don’t really know what [the future’s] going to look like.“
Evans saw the panel as a chance to maintain the optimism of Obama’s election despite the problems ahead.
“As Americans, we shouldn’t stop caring about politics the second the election is over,” she said.
ANDRE LEE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.