Barack Obama: The Man Who WasnÍt There

June 22, 2009
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

I write from Seoul, where I spoke at the World Economic Forum’s East Asia Summit.

The two-day meeting, which wrapped up at a reception at the South Korean President’s (beautiful) residence, attracted 400 people, mainly from Korea, Japan, and China.

It dawned on me as the event drew to a close that Barack Obama’s name hardly figured in the proceedings. Yet America—and its role in the financial crisis and a return to growth—was hotly debated throughout.

There was a lot of energy spent discussing the ways that the United States, through sloppy and greedy banking practices and overconsumption by its consumers, had propelled Asia (and the rest of the world) into a steep decline. And there was equal attention given to debating what the next growth model will be, reflecting the consensus that the old world paradigm of “Asia produces; America consumes” is not likely to return.

But as far as I could tell, there was virtually no discussion about whether Obama reflects a new approach in Washington, which presumably is quite relevant for Asia and the rest of the world.

What conclusion do I draw from this?

I believe the lack of buzz about Obama reflects a sense that the long-term trends are much more important than the changes being proposed by one particular President at one moment in history. If this hunch is correct, it marks a very important turning point. It suggests a consensus view that the long-anticipated decline in relative American influence has reached a tipping point, and that a long-term look at the architecture of what Fareed Zakaria calls the “post-American world” is more important than the immediate details of the U.S. role in promoting a return to growth.

In the end, this probably overstates the case—but just by a bit.

For a long time, Americans have encountered a world that watches its actions in the minutest detail. When I lived in Paris, I felt that the average Parisian taxi driver knew more about U.S. politics than 90 percent of Americans (and probably some members of Congress.)

Seeing the moves of the most activist American president in a generation go more or less ignored is jarring: It is more—and different—change than even the Obama campaign promised.

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