Two challenges President elect Barack Obama will face when taking office

As President elect Barack Obama is getting ready to take office on january 20th 2009, all political leaders on the international stage rallying to congratulate and confronting him with their tremendous expectations, I would like to express how admirable I find his political campaign. Unfortunately, my post will add to high hopes and expectations he is aware of, anyway, from a German perspective. Having watched the entire election night on November 4/November 5 live and two years of campaign trail on CNN before it is not diffiult for Americans to see that all of us here were in a political campaign fever, too. Rallying around the Obama flag internationally looks like this, these days. Shrinkingissaac writes he „is amused by how many non-Americans i know are as excited about last night as any Americans i know.“ . Marcus Beckedahl at Netzpolitik predicts that German election campaign of 2009 online will be nothing more than a gray shade as compared to Obama’s campaign. The Britons, by contrast, invite Obama’s election campaign team and try to learn how key lessons from Obama’s presidential campaign can be transferred to Britain. That is what I would expect for political campaigning in Germany, as well.

Barack Obama has taken Max Weber’s concept of the charismatic leader to a whole new level and into the 21st century with his impressive campaign. No other political leader can recur on a broad social movement to get things done. No other leader will have as much political power and as much influence as compared to Barack Obama in the years to come.

Fabio Rojas at orgtheory writes: „But before these issues assert themselves and force me to be critical, I wanted to take a few moments to discuss why I found Obama such a profoundly impressive figure over the past ten years.“ and points to Obama’s equanimity and openness in communication and to his persona combining intelligence, broad mindedness, inclusiveness, and charity toward the listener. From what I have perceived on the media Obama has a calmness hat makes him almost inprovokeable. Obama is not only a tremendous speaker in public but also an intellectual, who, I hope, is capable of dealing with enormous complexity, with interlinkeages and interdependencies among the various challenges confronting him. But it is the ascribed personality, our hopes and expectations, is what makes Obama a charismatic political leader unlike any other contemporay politician. So, in the face of the global challenges ahead I’ll try to explore why not only the United States but world citizens long for Barack Obama’s charismatic leadership. Why will Obama need the broad social movement that he created to get things done?

First Obama needs to fix the deadlocked economy. That is, financial markets are in a state in which banks refuse to lend each other money, to support entrepreneurs, to enhance private consumption. Uncertainty is extremly high, confidence is very low, and the interbank lending business comes to a standstill. In this situation of frozen credit relations it becomes extremely difficult to start a new business, to get a loan to buy a house, a new car etc. and that makes it so hard to sell a house, a car etc. Due to the sheer size and centrality of US economy a reduction of consumption in the USA hits every other national economy. The crisis spreads from one sector to all the other sectors, a crisis in US markets spreads globally, and the consequences are severe. For example, a reduction of consumption goods in the USA hits china, a reduction of purchase of cars affects Japan and Germany, a reduction of purchase of consumer electronics impacts Japan, and a reduction in purchase of investment goods has severe effects on the German economy, and reduced consumption of oil affects the developing economies in the Golf region. Thus, rising unemployment, anxiety and fear of an uncertain future in the US translates into similar problems in all other economies exporting to the US. Moreover, the German economy is deeply involved in the US crisis because in the recent decade of economic prosperity, large German companies changed their business strategies from a multiniche strategy with a strong technological orientation to financial investment strategies with the intention to better participate in global financial capitalism and have their share of the boom in financial markets; thus German companies withdrew from the networked structure of interlocking directorates and mutual capital investment that we refer to as „Deutschland AG“ (Germany Inc). Now, German employees slowly begin to realize their companies and jobs are much more dependent on the ups and downs on global financial markets, consumers feel the effects of banks increasing unwilllingness to lend money, and private investors are shocked learning that their private and even public banks invested in Lehmann Brothers, Fannie Mae & Freddy Mac (or their derivatives) and many other troubled giants. In this situation, many of Germany’s troubled banks are reluctant to take the money of the rescue package provided by German government. CEO Joseph Ackermann of Deutsche Bank, the’s biggest and dominant player in the German banking sector, said he would be ashamed if Deutsche Bank had to take financial help from the state. This contributes to a situation in which all the other banks are very reluctant to publicly disclose their financial troubles and financial support, even if they would need liquidity desperately, and banks continuing to not lend each other money. Due to lack of mutual trust, the interbank lending business comes to a standstill. This has consequences for all businesses endeavors and and to private consumption. It might take tremenous efforts and a long time until trust and confidence return and Germany begin to engage in business, again. In the extreme case, this would lead to a ’subsistance‘ economy (temporarily): Nobody wants to trade because prices are bad or market participants will not get appropriate finance from banks. Thus everybody wants just to maintain their position, and the economy comes to a standstill.This is the state that German economy is going into, as many Germans now begin to realize. „Subsistance economy“, though, is what Weber referred to as a premodern, precapitalist state of economics. Economic growthand business opportunity are fundamentally dependent, is conditional on mutual trust, on willingess to break with routines, to seek opportunity and take risks. No one would do all this without confidence. A charismatic political leader with a powerful social movement like the one Obama has created might be our the best chance to re-activate business, get people back to work and restore trust and confidence soon.

The other global challenge is terrorism. John McCain admitted in his fair concession to the president elect that he had his share of mistakes in the Republican campaign. My hunch goes in the direction that it is not only the Iraq experience, but also McCains military thinking. Military and secret service strategies as the predominant means to combat terrorism might be a part of the problem if not combined with other strategies. Of course, any US presidency, not just the one of George W. Bush, would have been shaped deeply by the 9/11 terrorist attacts in 2001, but his path led in a direction that produced new problems. I was lucky to attend a meeting of sociologists in Düsseldorf in June 2006 organized by Thomas Kron and Melanie Reddig where participants tried to think beyond pure military strategies and secret service surveillance to deal with terrorism. The speakers unfolded enormous creativity as to conceive of strategies that build on the fundamental strength and coherence of modern civil societies. The workshop was an eye-opener to me. It aimed at explaining where global transnational terrorism stems from and how it functions, and to conceive of strategies that might break its logic. E.g. what would happen if no one wanted to be a terrorist?  What would be if no one would be interested in committing suicide attacts? Anything we could do such that terrorists will simply find no more recruits? *Though I do  not remember a charismatic leader being mentioned on the sociology meeting on transnational terrorism in 2006 in Düsseldorf, Barack Obama with his tremendous credentials stemming from the social movement he put together with his campaign might be one of world society’s best chances to prevail in the face of terrorism, particularly now as nation states such as Afganistan and Pakistand reportedly are at the brink of collapse due to terrorism. What it takes – hopefully – is an increase in trust (not distrust), a stronger social coherence binding people tightly together, but on a international scale. The only figure in contemporary politics, I think, who can live up to expectations as high as these and contribute to ‚ideal conditions‘ to enable western societies prevail in the face of global terrorism, will be Barack Obama, plus everybody who joins in the social movement that Obama did put and will put together. His reputation stems from the social movement he put together with his campaign.

It was twenty past five on November 5 when I watched Obama’s speech on TV. YouTube has a version where you can watch it anytime. For the pure joy, you might want to watch the historic speech once more:

* For my German readers, this book „Soziologie des transnationalen Terrorismus“ was published in the aftermath of the meeting in German VS Verlag for Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden.

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