An American President in the Age of Globalization

By Strobe Talbott
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During the 2008 campaign, he identified himself as a "citizen of the world." Obama is not the first president to make that claim. Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did, too. But Obama is the first to do so before he was elected. Moreover, he did it on foreign soil, at the Tiergarten in Berlin in July 2008. The venue was part of his message: He was campaigning for the leadership of his own nation by demonstrating his appeal to and identification with people of other nations, regions and cultures.

In the early 1980s, when Obama was in his 20s, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago. On several occasions during his campaign he cited that experience as a lesson useful to organizing the community of nations in an increasingly interdependent world.

In short, Obama supports global governance, even though he carefully avoids that phrase since it makes many Americans think of black helicopters and is even more toxic than "citizen of the world."

For all these reasons, Barack Hussein Obama has - by virtue of his identity, his biographical narrative, and his worldview - the ideal credential to lead the US in the age of globalization. For many Americans, his ascension to the White House has been a dream come true. For others, however, it continues to be a nightmare, a confirmation of their deepest fears about Obama and globalization itself.

So what now? Will Obama succeed in his second term where he was frustrated in his first? The answer depends on how hard he tries and how willing the Republicans in Congress are to work with him.

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On global warming, Obama's hand may be strengthened. His tenure in office no longer depends on voters in the coal-producing precincts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Also, as of this past summer, opinion surveys show an upward trend in public concern about climate because of what people experience firsthand: freak droughts in the Corn Belt, falling water tables in the Southwest, catastrophic fires in the Rockies and a tropical storm devastating the Northeast in late October. Ironically, Sandy provided an election-eve pair of boons for Obama: Michael Bloomberg, an Independent and New York City's mayor, endorsed the president; and Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey, praised Obama for his handling of the disaster.

Another test of Obama's courage of his convictions is whether he makes an all-out effort to ratify the CTBT.

The overarching question about Obama's second term is whether he can reassure his domestic constituency and his global one that America is governable. Traveling around the world, I've been struck by the level of interest in - and anxiety about - this year's US elections. The suspense wasn't just about who would win, but whether winners and losers in the races for the White House and Congress can break the multiple impasses that have so crippled national governance in recent years.

Much will depend on whether the federal government can avoid hurtling over the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff. If so, it will augur well not just for the US economy but for the world's. It will also help restore American leadership of global governance, by that or any other name. While that won't get Obama another Nobel Prize, it will make him, and the Norwegians, feel better about the one he collected three years ago.

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Strobe Talbott is president of the Brookings Institution and chairman of the State Department's Foreign Affairs Policy Board. He was the first director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Yale Global

(AP Photo)


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