Barack Obama and the Three Tests – the opera

Barack Obama and the Three Tests – the opera

Over the years, the writer has enjoyed being both a music and theatre critic, as well as a political analyst. Rather than either topic, the real challenge has often been to find a way to bring these two disparate strands together - but every once in a while it seems they come together for you all by themselves. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Magic Flute is of course one of the great products of the European Enlightenment – with its glorious music and a story line that counterpoises the forces of reason against the forces of chaos and untamed nature. The opera’s dramatic action comes via three tests posed by Sarastro, the high priest, that Tamino, accompanied by his sidekick Papageno, must overcome to be successful in his quest to find his promised bride. 

And by contrast, what of newly reelected American president, Barack Obama? Well, Obama has now been sorely tested by three extraordinary challenges of his own. If Tamino had to contend with fire, flood and an unfathomable labyrinth before his labours were done, Obama had to overcome his own fire – the imminent meltdown of the nation’s financial system, just as he was coming into office. Then, more recently, as the nation’s president, he had to deal with the floods of Super Storm Sandy. 

And now, thirdly, Obama confronts the maze of the government’s budgetary fiscal cliff and related government expenditure issues. (Obama is actually being forced to deal with more than three challenges, especially if one counts the longer-term questions of the nation’s entitlement spending for the growing legion of the now-retiring baby boom generation as well as the whole slate of the nation’s foreign policy challenges, but more on that later on.) 

By the end of Mozart’s opera, of course, Tamino has found his bride, Pamina, and virtually everyone is happy. Well, okay, not the Moorish slave Monostatos and not the Queen of the Night, but you can’t have everything. 

Barack Obama already has a perfectly fine wife of course, in the person of Michelle Obama, but whether Barack Obama will be as lucky in gaining his much-desired presidential historical legacy from dealing with crucial policy challenges is still an open question. But it is a crucially important one – and one that could generate sufficient drama for a whole season of operas at the M et or Covent Garden.

Even before Barack Obama had been sworn in as president on 20 January 2009, the fire of the financial meltdown was poised to consume his presidency – as it was already doing to his predecessor’s final months in office. In fact, on Obama’s Inauguration Day, Harvard University’s student satire magazine, “The Harvard Onion”, had headlined their special edition on Obama with a headline: “Nation hands black man worst job in country.” Things had gotten so bad there were no “best” choices in dealing with this man-made catastrophe of Obama’s first test – and perhaps there weren’t even very many good ones.

That Obama ultimately supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and then added – more controversially for some of his critics – a hard-fought fiscal crisis stimulus package, the auto manufacturers bailout, and the Dodd-Frank financial reform package, among other measures, all showing a willingness to try anything and everything that might forestall an even faster, deeper economic stall – or even a systemic collapse. In that way, the Obama administration had recapitulated the first months of an earlier Democratic president – Franklin Roosevelt in the Great Depression. If it turned out that a new program didn’t help in surmounting his challenges, Roosevelt just tried something else.

Then, as the Obama administration was in its fourth year, Obama suddenly had his new, second challenge – and an opportunity – also in the form of a flood. Super Storm Sandy arrived at a way that could even be read as a dramatic, divine challenge. Handled badly, it could have quite literally drowned the success of his campaign for reelection. Instead, as president, Obama made use of the opportunity suddenly presented by Super Storm Sandy to great effect – taking on the winds and the floods and even co-opting a few highly visible Republicans as supporting cast – thus gaining a hearty round of applause from his audience, errr, the prospective voters.

Having secured his success in the election on the back of this second challenge and having vanquished his opponent, Mitt Romney, Obama now faces his most horrific test yet – the monster dwelling in the labyrinth of the fiscal cliff. Perhaps at this point the reader should try to visualize the strikingly suntanned Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, attired in a flowing operatic dress and matching wig, singing a thoroughly alarming rendition of The Queen of the Night’s aria.

This new budgetary challenge may be the biggest one of all. Simply put, if a real compromise is not reached by the first week of January 2013, the automatic, draconian sequestrations of the federal budget Congress had earlier imposed on itself (with the president’s signature of course) will automatically kick in. The point of the exercise was that the shock of this was supposed to goad Congress and the White House into reaching a more appropriate, broader, more lasting compromise on taxes and the budget before the sword descended and started to cleave its way through the federal landscape. 

At this point, a majority of the nation’s economists argue that impact of such sudden, deep budgetary cuts would throw the country into a nice classical-style recession, shrinking growth by as much as 2%. This would include that huge whack of a cut in the defense budget that was so decried by the Republican challenger to the president – until he lost the election. Accompanying this fiscal cliff as well is the continuing – and ever-growing – challenge of Social Security and Medicare reform (the government pensions and medical care program for the over-65 set) for which any changes in benefits and financing mechanisms are usually termed the third rail of American politics. Touch it and be electrocuted.

There is, of course, still another challenge – or set of them – for Obama. These are all those pending issues in America’s foreign affairs. Without going into them in detail – that will come in a separate article a little later on – just the list of them would be enough to send almost any operatic hero into a tailspin. Moving towards the east, the list must surely include the continuing euro zone/European debt crisis, the poisonous Israel-Iran dynamic, the toxic Syrian civil war, the future of all those post-Arab Spring societies, bringing the Afghan war to a successful conclusion and rebuilding a decaying relationship with Pakistan, dealing with the continuing insecurities that evolve from the depredations of non-state actors like all the members of the al Qaeda “franchise”, an emboldened, more assertive China that increasingly throws its weight around East Asia, the challenges of the global international economic order, the creation of a stable relationship with post-Cold War Russia, and the nuclear armed hermit kingdom of North Korea – just to name a few of the more obvious ones.

The core problem for a president, any president, is that unlike an opera, in foreign policy the fat lady never really comes on stage to sing and send everybody out into the night air, relishing a magnificent, decisive resolution of the tangled plot. With foreign policy, there is always another entanglement that must be addressed – and all without upsetting all the other issues already arrayed in front of the chief executive even further than they already are. But that is the essence of the search for a historical legacy – and a legacy is goal number one in every president’s second term of office. DM

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) celebrates with his wife Michelle, his Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s wife Jill (L-R) after winning the U.S. presidential election in Chicago, Illinois November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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