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Obama: from soaring rhetoric to brass tacks

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Two questions have been constantly asked in Australia since the election of Barack Obama. First, is the presidency a poisoned chalice? Second, what direction is an Obama administration likely to take and how might this impact on Australia?

The poisoned chalice theory is a misnomer, as being elected president is a massive achievement that most politicians would accept in good times or bad. In fact, without a tanking US economy, the troubles in Iraq and the unpopularity of George W. Bush, Americans might not have been receptive to electing Obama. The difficult times suited Obama’s message of change.

Furthermore, as strange as it may sound, politicians often prefer hard times to prove their greatness. Bill Clinton apparently complained to his advisers that he could not be a truly great president because he led America not in a time of crisis like FDR or Lincoln but in a time of peace and prosperity.


Obama’s transformative and messianic rhetoric has struck a chord with his fellow Americans in difficult times. To Australians, Obama often sounds like a preacher as much as a politician when he talks grandly about “hope” and “change”. To Americans, Obama’s optimistic message of renewing America’s special promise is a very familiar script in presidential speech-making, although delivered by a different looking leader.

In the short term Obama’s rhetoric is inspiring particularly with regards to healing America’s history of racism and discrimination. However, what of the practical and overwhelming issues of the economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the massive challenge of climate change?

Obama’s speeches during the campaign did not put climate change centre stage but he said enough to suggest he sees this problem as dramatic and urgent. His prescription is not that different from the one promoted by Al Gore in 2000, namely that America should embrace a green technology revolution as its path to both environmental and economic success. The question is how he can make up for those lost eight years not only on the environment but also on a number of other fronts.

The problems Obama faces in Iraq and Afghanistan are incredibly unfortunate. Mistakes can easily be made with every policy decision. America has become responsible for the security and stability of these two nations. Some are even suggesting Afghanistan could be for Obama what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson: the intractable war that overshadowed his achievements fighting poverty and racism in America.

What does this all mean for Australia? Obama’s optimistic campaign talk about winning the war in Afghanistan has apparently been recast since he won the election to project more modest goals. Nonetheless, according to some reports, the Rudd Government has been asked to provide more troops and has said no. If this is true, it is a wise decision that suggests a mature confidence about the Australian-American alliance. Confidence and maturity is not always the hallmark of our relationship with America; rather we seem prone to constant anxiety about matters as unimportant as whether George W. Bush offered Rudd a dead-fish handshake at the recent G20 summit in Washington DC.

Initially the Australian government will find it a challenge to gain the attention of the Obama administration as it competes with the rest of the world to be noticed. The Rudd Government should aim to co-operate with an Obama administration in developing new regional and multilateral agreements on global warming. Australia would also be wise in the years ahead to become more involved in joint ventures aimed at developing new and more efficient energy sources.


Whenever a new administration or Congress is elected in the US, the spectre of renewed protectionism re-emerges. This is a reasonable concern, particularly given the current rapid rise in unemployment in America.

During the campaign Obama talked about trade restrictions particularly when campaigning against Hillary Clinton in Ohio. This not surprisingly made the Canadians nervous. When approached by the Canadian government however the Obama camp claimed talk of protectionism was just campaign talk.

Now that Obama is the first Democrat to win Ohio in the general election since Bill Clinton in 1996, will protectionism be back on the table? Given that unemployment levels are over 7 per cent in Ohio and nearing 9 per cent in Michigan (the home of America’s crisis ridden automobile industry), the short answer is yes.

What impact this will have on Australian businesses is hard to tell. Perhaps Australia’s Free Trade Agreement with the US will provide us with some immunity from protectionism. However, the agreement only covers some industries and offers America significant room to change the rules of trade.

Australia will not be alone in holding its breath to see where Obama goes on trade. People around the globe are not only admiring Obama’s fine rhetoric but also nervously waiting to see whether an Obama administration will seek to look after American industries at the expense of businesses in Australia and elsewhere.

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First published in The Herald Sun on November 20, 2008.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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