Do you think change is coming? Well, join the club. Or maybe the two clubs, I should say. As I sat on the Low steps to witness history being made, the atmosphere of yesterday's presidential inauguration brought to mind the initial feelings of anxiety and anticipation that circulated amongst both liberals and conservatives right after the election. Liberals were just titillated by the prospect of the egalitarian possibilities about to be unleashed by a progressive Barack Obama presidency. The reign of the neocons having come to an end, many also expected the trigger-happy days of American unilateralism to come to a screeching halt. On the other hand, some conservatives nervously forecast the coming of the Obama administration as a sign of the advent of socialism and an America too politically correct to even defend itself. But as the Obama administration prepares to take over the reins, it's important to take a sober look at the words and actions of the administration thus far, so that at least expectations are in tune with realities. By my count, compared to the two most significant issues facing the country, the differences between the incoming and outgoing administrations appear much fainter indeed. Take the economy first. Which administration argued for the supposed necessity of funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to incompetent and financially inept companies? Hint: there's no wrong answer. The current arguments for bailing out auto and insurance companies look eerily similar to those offered by the previous administration for rescuing financial institutions. Any bets on who will be next in line? Move on to foreign policy. How have Obama's cabinet appointments been regarded by the neocons from whose policies Obama vowed to distance himself? Some have been pleasantly "gob-smacked" (in the words of neoconservative activist Max Boot) while others found the picks "reassuring" (in those of none other than one Karl Rove). And remember, during the campaign, Obama promised to expand the war in Afghanistan and even unilaterally move into Pakistan, if it came to that. No doubt the past election and yesterday's inauguration were historic ones for the country. But the fundamental "change" in policy that many conservatives dreaded and liberals anticipated may well prove to be illusory. To a large extent, that's because the same basic paradigms regarding the role and authority of government institutions, both abroad and domestically, will remain in operation. In foreign policy, both administrations accept a model that places overwhelming authority in the executive decisions of the commander in chief. We all know this about former president George W. Bush, thanks to his eight-year foreign policy record. However, despite Obama's convincing stance against the Iraq War, it was the lack of international support and the uncertainty in the costs and length of the mission that he cited as the basis for his distaste for entering Iraq. Certainly, his criticism of the outgoing administration did not emphasize the constitutionality and legality of a war that was and still remains undeclared by Congress. This isn't just a technical point. The ability to initiate military action without the express approval of legislators always allows for the distinct possibility that any incoming administration will use the power of the executive branch to pick and choose conflicts based on its own ideological agenda and without vigorous debate. Even if the Obama administration as a matter of contingency happens to pursue less militaristic policies, there is no reason to believe it will be on the basis of a consistent foreign policy underlined by adherence to our rule of law. This leaves the door open for future administrations to follow the precedent of bypassing the Constitution and our fundamental understanding of government power. Domestically, the model of broad federal intervention in the sector du jour of the economy seems to be in vogue. We know how the supposedly laissez-faire Bush administration proved all too eager to empower former-CEOs-turned-Washington-bureaucrats to manage the balance sheets of financial institutions. But President Obama has talked about the establishment of a "car czar" to oversee the production of the most appropriate vehicles for the country. Not only is entrusting these sectors of the economy to be intelligently run by bureaucrats of the federal government hopelessly naïve, but it goes beyond the limitations of our free-market conventions. Even if one believes that these particular policies are somehow crucial for the present prosperity of the country, they will certainly contribute to the long-term trend of ignoring the limits of government in order to interfere with "special" parts of the economy. There are many problems with this arrangement, but there may be one that people of all political persuasions can understand—what are today called "special" parts of the economy will be tomorrow's reviled interest groups, receiving special benefits, no doubt for special reasons. Wholly swallowing the paradigm of government interference in the marketplace opens the door for exactly the same maladies that are so much the object of today's criticisms of government. It remains to be seen whether the much ballyhooed "change" anticipated by some and feared by others will be implemented when it comes to the most important issues facing the country, but the failure to move away from prevalent models of expansive government powers, both abroad and domestically, leave me unconvinced that any meaningful change is on the horizon. In fact, the strengthening of these old paradigms simply makes it more likely that future administrations will continue to make the same mistakes of yesteryear. So I have good news for conservatives and bad news for liberals. Conservatives: the good news is that, on the most important issues, the incoming administration's policies probably won't be much of a departure from the last eight years'. Liberals: the bad news is that, well, on the most important issues, the incoming administration's policies won't be much of a departure from the last eight years'. The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in biochemistry and minoring in philosophy. He is the Vice President of the Columbia University Libertarians.
Columbia Spectator Staff