Who can do this job? As Barack Obama verges on an historic victory next week, it is clear he will inherit the desert: Costly and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A global economic downturn. A financial system choking on its own excesses. Broken health care. Unaddressed catastrophic climate change. Gilded age inequality and rising poverty. A collapsing infrastructure. Public education starved for investment and reform. A failed global economic strategy. This list can go on. He inherits the ruins left behind by what he correctly calls a "failed philosophy."
Can he possibly meet this challenge? Only time will tell, but we can see that he comes into office with assets of remarkable–but seldom remarked on–power.
The first of these is trust. Americans currently do not trust the current president–as every poll shows. Our allies do not trust our president, nor do our adversaries. Bush claimed "unitary" powers greater than any president in history–but left himself ever weaker. Without trust, Americans will not follow; allies will not join; adversaries will not deal.
Take ending the war in Iraq. Having America mired in Iraq is against the security interests of this country and of our allies. But our allies will not cooperate to help George Bush extricate himself from the catastrophe of his own making. For Obama, on the other hand, Americans will look to him to lead us out. Allies will cooperate with creating the collective security and regional security meetings needed to make the exit work. Even our adversaries like Iran will have greater trust in dealing with Obama than with a president who scorned them as part of the "axis of evil."
And Obama does not ask us to trust him. That's McCain's line–"I know how to get bin Laden; I know how to fix this economy; I'm the maverick who acts alone." Obama calls us to come together to trust one another. "Yes, WE can" is his slogan. Not "I will save you;" but together we can build anew.
The second powerful asset is faith and hope. Faith, the Bible tells us, is the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." With faith and hope, people can move mountains. Without it, fear and cynicism make them easy to divide and distract. After eight years of George Bush, in the wake of Katrina, the corruption in Washington, the excesses on Wall Street, Americans have lost faith in their leaders and their government. By challenging that failure, demanding change, calling on people once more to believe, Obama has begun to generate the hope and the energy that can galvanize America. This is evident among the young who have rallied to his cause. They see, in John Kennedy's words, "the torch of freedom passed to a new generation."
Barack's third powerful asset is redemption, the lifting of past sins and transcending of past grievances. The Americans who elect an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency will surprise themselves. Across the world, America will be seen once more as a land of opportunity. Across this country, racism will not end; the legacies of 300 years will not be erased. But the sense of healing, of possibility, of rising above past grievances will be universally shared. We will look at one another differently on that day.
These are powerful, if unknowable, assets. They are not indestructible. Trust can be violated; faith can be shattered; redemption can fall short. But Obama will face the forbidding challenges of this time bolstered and emboldened by these powerful forces.
In 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in the midst of the Depression, he told Americans in his first inaugural address that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," even as he candidly talked about the challenges ahead. He called on Americans to trust, to hope and to act together. And Roosevelt acted. He put people to work rebuilding America, and empowered workers to organize. He bridled banks and held corporations accountable. Social Security was created. National parks expanded. Electricity–and price supports–came to rural America. Trust and faith were redeemed. And rising out of depression and global war, our parents and grandparents created an economy in which the blessings of prosperity could be widely shared.
We've done it before. We can do it again. And Obama, like Roosevelt, comes to office able to call upon us once more.