[Outlook]Sleepless in the Blue House

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[Outlook]Sleepless in the Blue House

The United States is great. More precisely, Americans made a great choice [electing Barack Obama]. It’s true that the nation has matured and Americans became sick and tired of Republican Party rule. But still, their courage to accept a black politician as their leader deserves praise. Merely 45 years ago whites stoned blacks who marched for civil rights. Only 40 years ago, a clergyman from Atlanta who called out for the right to dream in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma was killed. Last week a 106-year-old black woman who started out as a maid for white people voted for the first time, joyful beyond words.

Countless low-income citizens who represent the flip side of the country’s affluence, who struggle with mortgages, medical fees and tuition, were moved to hear Barack Obama’s words. Low-income citizens enthusiastically supported Obama, only 47, a rookie politician who has a mere three and a half years of experience as a senator, asking him to restore American values.

In his victory speech, Obama healed the hard feelings of average American citizens. Politics begins with words, and his words are direct and his language is honest. He transformed memories of agony and sadness into history. He inspired bold hope with these simple words: “Yes, we can.” He was more than a black person. Or, because he is black his words were more moving. As Nicolas Sarkozy wrote in his congratulatory message, Obama’s victory proved that the vital force behind U.S. democracy still exists. His victory is a great event of the 21st century, a dramatic moment in the history of civilization that could only happen in the United States.

For four to eight years to come, the United States will turn to liberalism. The Democratic Party and Obama maintain that since the early 1990s, the U.S. has become excessively unfair, has demonstrated its military power too much and has acted as an arrogant empire. In his book “The Conscience of a Liberal,” Paul Krugman criticized that America has strayed too far from where it started as it clung to its problematic abundance. A wealth gap, a weak middle class and a majority of people in poverty were the results of neoconservative rule. Three core American values - family, work and happiness - have been damaged to such a degree that they can’t be healed, he warned.

Obama will mobilize liberal figures from the University of Chicago and the Brookings Institution and a package of liberal policies immediately. Expectations for domestic issues include social welfare, increases in taxes, stability in employment, bans on discrimination, an easing of immigration requirements and programs to protect the domestic market. As for foreign affairs, we will likely see negotiations with enemy countries, a re-examination of free trade agreements, enhancement of international institutions and strengthened diplomacy.

This future-oriented change is a natural course for the U.S., and very good for a world that is ridden with war and conflict. But it brings a sense that something is out of sync with Korea, where a conservative administration has taken office. With its dignified rhetoric and consistency, the Obama administration would have been better matched with the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration. Both support the Sunshine Policy and prioritize welfare, egalitarianism and increasing taxes. President Bush and President Lee hit it off from the moment they first met but their good chemistry will end after less than a year.

Bush and former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain proved friendship is more effective in resolving issues. The relationship between Bush and former President Roh was so distant that the U.S. president even called his Korean counterpart “this guy.” There was no chance for relations to go smoothly. President Lee’s three quintessential characterstics - devoutly Christian, conservative and a background as a business leader - were sources of trust for Bush. One wonders how Obama will interpret Lee’s CV.

Obama will probably regard President Lee as Korea’s answer to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the originators of neoconservatism. In a telephone conversation on Nov. 7, Obama said bulgogi and kimchi are some of his favorite lunch choices. President Lee may have been relieved to hear that. But to Obama, Korea threatens the automobile industry in Detroit and Chicago, his support base, and begs for trade advantageous only to Korea. He also thinks Koreans are diligent but selfish. Unless his views on Korea change, the next four years will be a tough journey for this country.

Rumor has it that the Blue House has begun to study Obama’s ideology in preparation for the president’s first meeting with him scheduled for next month. It looks like the Blue House won’t be getting much sleep for a while.


*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ho-keun
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