If one was to judge by the calendar alone, the 21st century started eight years ago this week. Although, when people refer to the 21st century in conversation, often they aren’t talking about the specific time period between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2099, but the attitude, philosophy, and technological savvy that is becoming a requirement in the modern world. Unfortunately for us, while individuals in the United States might be existing in the 21st century, our government’s attitudes and actions over the past eight years have been stuck squarely in the 20th.
When history is written, George W. Bush’s worst critics will accuse him of everything from willful negligence in handling 2008’s economic crisis to war crimes in the context of the catastrophic mistake that is the war in Iraq. In the end, they very well may be correct, but it is possible that all of his mistakes were not of the completely sinister nature like they’re sometimes characterized, but rather can be traced back to overall tragedy that he was simply a president stuck in the wrong century. Bush’s core beliefs “" that the free market could police itself, that oil is always our answer, and that we can bomb and kill others into submission without chain reactions of consequences “" were dying an eventual death around the time of Y2K, but Bush made sure to keep them on life support much longer than they ever should have survived.
There is no bigger example of The Past sucking the blood out of The Future than GM, Ford, and Chrysler begging for money from the U.S. Government yet again. This past month, we saw the Big Three auto companies fly in their private jets to Washington to request billions of dollars because for the past 25 years they have steadfastly refused to look at the calendar. They defiantly rejected efforts to increase their fuel efficiency standards as every country”"even China”"passed us in their mandatory requirements. Because executives lobbyied Congressmen to vote against everyone’s interests but theirs, their companies made short term profits that both crippled them and damaged the country. After all, only a 7.6 mile per gallon increase in our collective car efficiency would be enough to completely free ourselves from Middle East oil, while saving the individual American consumer critical pocket money. Instead, these companies marketed trucks that could pull airplanes down a runway and consumed oil at a breakneck pace. But why would they care about those details? They could just shove SUVs down Americans’ throats by luring them through tax breaks into a choice so obviously against their interests.
This is just the most blatant example of our chronic sickness of holding onto the past. It illustrates that the worst flaw of George Bush, and in turn of the corporations he represents, may be that he simply did not realize what century we lived in. The banking crisis, car company meltdown, and failed fight against Islamist extremism can be boiled down to using 20th century policies in a 21st century world.
As tears were streaming down the faces of millions of Americans on the night of November 4, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama said, in words that would ring loudly far after the last piece of confetti had fallen, “The time for change has come.” It was a beautiful sight for more reasons than one. Many were crying because the sight of a black man winning the American presidency was possibly the most powerful symbol of American exceptionalism anyone had ever seen. But those words were much more than a symbol of tolerance and the triumph of ability. They were a prologue to the tangible changes that will dramatically alter this country in the coming months”"much more change than has ever happened in our lifetime.
Obama has spent his transition months putting together what has been almost universally lauded as a cabinet filled with experience, pragmatism, and overall excellence. It is a cabinet based solely on achievement, without regard for partisanship or political and financial connections.
While all of Obama’s cabinet picks have been praised for their qualifications and temperance, none exemplifies the stark realities of the new way of doing things better than Obama’s pick for Energy Secretary, Dr. Steven Chu. Chu is a Nobel Prize winning physicist who is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a global warming research center whose primary goal is “to develop methods to “store” solar energy in the form of renewable transportation fuel.” There is a reason Al Gore is planning a Green Inaugural. It’s because The Age of Oil is coming to a close and Obama plans to kick it out the door.<!–nextpage–>
Bush’s pick for Energy Secretary, on the other hand, was Spencer Abraham, a Michigan senator most famous for taking more campaign donations from those same dinosaurs in the American Auto Industry than any other senator, and led the fight against corporate average fuel efficiency standards in automobiles. Change indeed.
But this is not just a Liberal president replacing Conservatives with more of the same from the other side. It’s a complete change in a philosophy that has run our government since its inception. Obama, when asked what he would do to help his “friends” in Springfield, Illinois to stem their State’s budget shortfalls,‚ challenged the very nature of the question.
“Part of the charge [of the budget team] is to make sure that we are proceeding on projects and investments based on national priorities and not based on politics,” he said. “Now you mentioned, sort of, ‘my friends.’ I want to be clear friendship doesn’t come into this. That’s part of the old way of doing business.
“The new way of doing business is, let’s figure out what projects, what investments are going to give the American economy the most bang for the buck. How can we protect taxpayer dollars so this money is not wasted; restore a sense of confidence among taxpayers that when we spend their money, it’s on things that are actually gonna improve their quality of life; create the jobs that are so desperately needed; help to spur on economic growth and business creation in the private sector? That’s all part of the new way of doing business.”
Being friends with the President is no longer a means to an end in any sense. Just ask John Kerry, one of Obama’s biggest and earliest supporters. He was passed over for Secretary of State in favor of Hillary Clinton, a person many accused of secretly rooting for Obama’s political destruction only months ago. While Kerry was certainly qualified, Obama’s decision underscored the notion that the age of cronyism is over. No more “Heckuva Job” Brownies or “I do not recall” Alberto Gonzaleses.
This Cult of Competence has been put in place to help Obama alter our policies as smoothly as possible, and the cornerstone to this change will come in the form of a massive stimulus package that Obama plans to sign perhaps as early as Inauguration Day, every single element of which is designed take take us out of the antiquated 20th Century once and for all.
For a month now, Obama’s economic team has been crafting this new package, not aimed at Wall Street Banks or the crumbling car companies, but for Middle Class Americans. And it starts with the Internet. The money will be spent on laying broadband across the country, with the goal of giving every American free Internet access, a move that’s been on the FCC’s desk for years but which the Bush Administration has stubbornly tabled. As Obama has said, “we are the nation that invented the Internet, yet we are 15th in the world in broadband adoption. It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online.”
But that is just the start of what may come to be known as America 2.0. Every goal of the stimulus bill is designed to put Americans to work immediately, but even more importantly, set us up for the future. A nationwide high-tech power grid that will allow states to share solar and wind power will accelerate our ability to get off our dependence on foreign oil. Along with that universal access to the Web, a transfer of all hospital records to an electronic broadband system will eventually save the country billions of savings in administrative costs annually. Moreover, massive construction efforts to modernize public schools will encourage young Americans to learn and save massive amounts of money by making the buildings more energy efficient with new lighting and insulation.
As Obama often said during the campaign, the money that we spent on the Iraq War could have been used to rebuild every road, bridge, and school in our country “" an intriguing thought that some might say is farfetched. Not anymore. This stimulus package could reach as high as $800 billion, actually approaching the number we have fiddled away in Iraq.
With all of this new technology helping the lives of people in the United States, Obama’s foreign policy will be aimed at change for everyone that lives outside of the country. He is in the midst of planning a major foreign policy speech to be given in an Islamic country in his first 100 days, through which he hopes to win the hearts and minds of everyone looking for an end to the seemingly never ending violence in the Middle East and beyond. This has never taken on greater importance than now as Israel’s War against Hamas threatens to put the region and the world on an even greater imbalance. The 20th Century was filled with religious wars and intolerance on a global scale, and as the leader of the Free World, the weight of moving not only our country, but the world in a new direction has fallen squarely on Obama’s shoulders
Our new president will face tough questions about how to bring the Iraq War to an end and how to fix a war in Afghanistan that now includes Pakistan, India, and even complications with Iran”"a daunting challenge. But if we learned anything from Barack Obama on that historic November night, while the path to the future may be tough, there is only one answer to the question as to whether this country and the world can succeed. Yes We Can.
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