Bob Herbert Op-Ed Columnist The New York Times
Barack Obama appears to have put together an extraordinarily competent team to cope with the crises abroad and at home — and to begin cleaning up the mess of the past eight years.
So why do I have this uneasy feeling?
Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Eric Holder, Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers ...
Competence is clearly trumping ideology in the next administration, and lord knows after two terms of Bush & Co. it’s time to get back to the idea of smart, capable people advising the president and executing his policies.
What I wonder is whether the members of this team, in addition to their grasp of the issues and success at achieving power, have a real feel for the needs of the people they are supposed to be representing.
I don’t doubt that they have the best of intentions. But the people at the pinnacle of power in Washington are encased in a bubble that makes it extremely hard to hear the voices of those who aren’t already powerful themselves.
On Monday, the president-elect introduced a national security team that will face a nightmarish array of challenges: the promised drawdown in Iraq; a worsening situation in Afghanistan; the crisis unfolding in India and Pakistan; and so on.
But it also has a responsibility to look out for the members of the military who are exhausted from years of valiant service. Many have served three and four (or more) tours in combat, and many thousands have been wounded in mind and body and are having a difficult time putting their lives back together.
So a challenge as important as the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan is to send the message — and make it stick — that more Americans need to share in the sacrifices required to keep the nation and its interests secure.
President-elect Obama campaigned on the mantra of change. For years the federal government catered increasingly to the interests of the wealthy and the powerful. This reached a destructive crescendo when the ideologues and incompetents of the Bush administration came to power.
That is what needs to change.
Will this new Obama team, as brilliant as it appears to be, begin addressing on day one the interests of those who are not rich and who have not had the ear of those in power?
I think about the cops and firefighters and factory workers and schoolteachers and hospital aides and bank tellers and truck drivers who are having trouble making ends meet, hanging onto their homes, sending their children to college.
Will this new administration really be looking out for them?
One of the reasons the economy is so deeply in the tank is that ordinary Americans have not received a fair share of the economic advances of the past several years. You don’t hear much about this. Americans have been working harder and harder, and more and more efficiently (we are now the hardest working people on the planet, having passed the Japanese in this category), but ordinary workers have not been paid for this enhanced productivity.
As my colleague at The Times, Steven Greenhouse, pointed out in his book “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” published earlier this year:
“Even though corporate profits have doubled since recession gave way to economic expansion in November 2001, and even though employee productivity has risen more than 15 percent since then, the average wage for the typical American worker has inched up just 1 percent (after inflation).”
That was part of a pattern of gross unfairness that has been unfolding for some three decades. No wonder people have depleted their savings and maxed out their credit cards.
The crisis now, of course, is not that wages are stagnant but that the jobs themselves are disappearing. It’s not just change that the nation needs, but big change.
President-elect Obama has talked of a “new dawn of American leadership.” Three-quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt promised a New Deal and said his biggest task was “to put people to work.”
That’s as appropriate a cue as any for the next president. I hope Mr. Obama’s “new dawn” portends more than just a few nibbles around the edges of change. We need change that brings about more shared sacrifice in wartime and tough times, and a more equitable distribution of the nation’s resources all the time.
I want to know who in the Obama administration will be listening to the young girl on the South Side of Chicago whose future is constrained by a lousy public school, and the factory worker in Toledo whose family’s future has been trampled by unrestrained corporate greed and unfair trade policies.
All the evidence is that the next administration will be competent and smart as hell. Now I’d like to know for whom they plan to deliver.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company