Barack Obama has not asked for PAW’s advice on how to begin his administration — though he has chosen several Princeton alumni as top advisers. But good counsel comes from all quarters, and so PAW sought the ideas of alumni with different backgrounds and perspectives. To each, we asked: What three pieces of advice would you give the new president?
BY MOHSIN HAMID ’93
I cannot recall any event in recent political history that gave me as much joy as the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. I have lived almost half my life in America, and even though I live there no longer, I continue to have a familial sense of attachment to the United States. With this election, I felt I recognized my American family again, after eight years of shocked disconnection.
Here are my three recommendations for the new president:
Ah, Jerusalem. The longstanding conflict between Israelis and Palestinians not only is a tragedy and a source of great injustice, but it also stokes anti-American sentiment across much of the world. Your administration must realize that being pro-peace is not anti-Israel, and that Israel’s long-term interests can best be served by applying pressure to both sides in this dispute, rather than merely acceding to the demands of the more powerful party. Your remarks that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel created an impression of bias that you need to dispel. Make a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians central to your foreign-policy agenda. Forget the emotion-steeped names of the groups involved, and apply the lessons of the American civil-rights movement with evenhandedness.
A funny thing about allies. They are best treated as allies — in particular, Pakistan, where your remarks that you might send American troops in pursuit of terrorists have been deeply unpopular. A few facts are worth bearing in mind. Pakistan has a vast population: It is home to 170 million people, more than Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran combined. That population is overwhelmingly moderate: They went to the polls last year, and only 3 percent voted for the parties of the religious right. In addition to having nuclear weapons, Pakistan has a remarkably free media and a powerful pro-law protest movement, and twice has elected a female head of government. More Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in the last two years than Americans died on Sept. 11. Pakistan’s army has endured heavy losses of life in intense, ongoing fighting against extremists. This is a nation that needs to be treated as a partner.
Move beyond greatness. It is not possible to champion national greatness and human equality at the same time. People have no choice in where they are born, and nations are artificial constructs that use passports to deny equality. You are unlikely, of course, to want to throw open America’s borders to all immigrants or accept the creation of a global democracy in which the election of an American president no longer feels like the election of a world president. But allow yourself to gaze far along Martin Luther King Jr.’s long arc of history and ensure that you bend it ever so slightly, not toward supremacy, but toward justice.
Mohsin Hamid ’93 is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke, each of which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Born in Pakistan, he lives in London.
BY JOHN BOGLE '51
Our new president is right to begin his administration with the economy as his priority. Here are three suggestions:
Focus on stimulating our economy, beginning with support for our households, by encouraging and enabling mortgage lenders and servicers to amend existing home mortgages by some mix of lowering the amount owed, reducing the interest rate, and extending the maturity — all steps designed to deal directly with the collapse in housing prices. Lenders and borrowers alike — and neighborhoods, too — will benefit.
Invest in infrastructure. For years we have underinvested in our nation’s bridges, highways, and power grid, and the needs are great. While these investments inevitably will increase the already-staggering debt burden incurred by our federal government, they will increase employment, relieve the misery of the recession for many families, and directly stimulate our sagging economy.
Build confidence. You have electrified the nation with your character, your honesty, and your integrity. So speak the truth directly to our citizens, Franklin D. Roosevelt-style. Acknowledge that it is largely Wall Street that got Main Street into today’s mess — although the Street had lots of cooperation from federal agencies, the Congress, and the investing public. So work to return our financial sector to its traditional focus on long-term investment and fiduciary duty and away from today’s focus on short-term speculation and financial buccaneership. Be honest and blunt about the actions you will take, but always hold out hope — after all, we are Americans!
John Bogle ’51 founded the Vanguard Group, one of the largest mutual-fund companies in the world. In 2004 Time magazine named him one of the world’s most influential people.
BY ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER ’80
First, President Obama — who pledged during his campaign to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay — should announce that this will be done within three to six months, based on the recommendations of a distinguished bipartisan commission on how to handle the prisoners currently there and how to proceed in the future. He should announce at the same time that henceforth the Geneva Conventions will apply to all interrogations conducted by or at the direction of U.S. personnel.
Next, as part of an economic-stimulus package, he should offer tax credits and subsidies to every immigrant who starts a business of any kind connecting the United States to his or her home country.
Third, the president should work with Michelle Obama ’85 and his senior staff to set an example of an administration that genuinely values family life, even amid the most important and pressing affairs of state. Allow staff, both men and women, to work from home when necessary and to go home for family time. Make clear that such choices are not the mark of an insufficient commitment to one’s job, but are the hallmark of healthy priorities for individuals and the nation as a whole.
Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 is the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.
BY DANIELLE S. ALLEN ’93
Pay close attention to whether our diverse communities intersect with one another and whether our institutions help circulate across our multitudinous social barriers knowledge about what life is like in different quarters of the country. Above all, attend to the fact that having an all-volunteer military has led to a significant segmentation of American experience. The now-traditional line dividing red from blue states aligns almost exactly with the map identifying states with the highest and lowest per-capita rates of contribution to the military. We need to weave anew the fabric of shared citizenship.
Your campaign made intelligent use of social-networking technologies to reintroduce citizens to the experience of citizenship. Build on what you have done to reactivate citizenship for the whole American public, but recognize that this requires resisting the temptation to use your virtual network as a sort of bludgeon, a 21st-century version of a ward political organization. Advance on your success with an eye instead to extending the breadth and depth of substantive, cross-partisan, mutually oriented civic engagement.
Because a life spent entirely in public loses its depth, find time each day for reflection.
Danielle S. Allen ’93 is the UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She is the author of The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens and Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education.
BY JOSH KORNBLUTH ’80
It is well known that during most of President George W. Bush’s tenure, the United States has been exporting its democracy to countries around the world. While there can be no doubt that this policy has been motivated by pure altruism, the time has come for us to be a bit more selfish about how and where we allocate our greatest national invention. The peoples of the Middle East and other regions have been receiving enormous infusions of American democracy for long enough that they should be ready to begin producing their own, home-grown democracies; there are even reports of a democracy surplus in Iraq! At the same time, here at home our democracy levels — severely depleted by the recent election — are dangerously low.
If this trend continues, we will find ourselves in an unprecedented situation: America will be forced to become a net importer of democracy. This would be a national shame, and I respectfully urge President Obama to address the impending domestic democracy shortage by taking the following bold steps:
1. Draw on our vast underground reserves. There is an ocean of untapped democracy that we have yet to make use of. Much of it lies beneath the surface of our culture, hidden by a gaudy blanket of consumerism. Drill, baby, drill!
2. Think outside the ballot box. While most of our democratic energy has been poured into elections, at other times our overall capacity has been severely underutilized. Encourage the daily generation of democracy at the grassroots level.
3. Promote sustainable democracy by 2050. The above suggestions, though necessary, are stopgap at best. Ultimately, to survive the democratic shortages that will inevitably arise from time to time, Americans must learn to conserve. Let us target 2050 as the year by which we will have reduced America’s “civic footprint” to a size commensurate with our share of the planet’s total population. Yes, we can!
Josh Kornbluth ’80 (joshkornbluth.com) writes and performs comedic monologues and is the author of one book, Red Diaper Baby, a collection of three monologues. To see a clip from his “Citizen Josh” monologue, go to paw.princeton.edu.
BY RAYMOND ARSENAULT ’69
Offering unsolicited advice to someone as talented and knowledgeable as President Barack Obama is presumptuous. But if he were to ask for my counsel, I would urge him to adopt an unwavering commitment to fundamental and long-term change. The short-term agenda — meeting the immediate challenges of two wars and a failing economy — is essential. But it would be a shame, perhaps even tragic, if the energy and creativity of the new administration were completely absorbed by the crises of the moment. I would tell him to be wary of quick fixes and expedient shortcuts that solve a short-term problem but do nothing to change the underlying realities that brought about the problem in the first place. He should think historically, taking a long view that benefits from careful study of past experiences and that focuses on the evolving context of national and world affairs. The ill-advised invasion of Iraq, for example, almost certainly could have been avoided if American policymakers had paid more attention to the historical complexities of religion, political culture, and imperial ambition in the Middle East.
Sustaining quarterly corporate profit statements and ensuring the material comfort of the middle class are far less important than addressing the national and global problems that threaten life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Responding to the monumental problems posed by global warming and environmental degradation, maintaining an educated and informed citizenry, providing universal health care, restoring and sustaining constitutional safeguards related to civil liberties and human rights, ending the ravages of war and famine across the globe, securing energy independence, fostering mutual respect and understanding among disparate nations and cultures: These are the things that matter.
To paraphrase the anthem of the civil-rights struggle, President Obama must keep his eyes on the prize. Whenever the pressure from shortsighted politicians and pundits rises to an uncomfortable level — whenever he feels that he is in danger of losing sight of what is important — he should step back from the whirl of events and spend some time with his daughters. I have a hunch that they, more than any adviser, will help clear his head and steel his spirit, reminding him that his ultimate responsibility is to the future generations that will inherit the planet.
Raymond Arsenault ’69, the John Hope Franklin Professor of History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, is the author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006) and the forthcoming The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson’s Historic Concert at the Lincoln Memorial .
BY RUTH GAIS *74
When I was a graduate student in classical archaeology, I spent a lot of time looking at small things very closely: a pottery shard, the colors of dirt, dowel holes in a marble block, a puzzling word in Greek or Latin. Years later, as a rabbi, I spend a lot of time examining big things: great joy, great sorrow, troubling questions about a person’s life and worth, and the life of our planet. What I have discovered is that all of these things, from a spoonful of dirt to a dying man to an environment in peril, are inextricably connected. If we neglect this understanding, we jeopardize our own brief time as well as that of our children and grandchildren, and of all life on this Earth.
With this in mind, I would say to President Obama: Continue what you and your campaign committee so brilliantly realized: that many of us want to be involved. Don’t keep us in the dark. Help us to rise above our fears and narrow self-interests by reminding us that we are all in this together. Use us as agents for the good and the just. Keep connected with us, and keep us connected to each other. Send us out to work for social change, for human rights, for environmental justice, for renewable energy, for health-care reform, for decent schools, for all that is just and true.
And please, remember, as the prophet Micah taught, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”
Rabbi Ruth Gais *74 recently completed the first Greenfaith Fellowship Program, which prepares clergy and lay leaders from different religious traditions to take environmental leadership roles.
BY BRUCE A. YANKNER ’76
As a Princeton undergraduate, I was inspired by an air of adventure and great opportunity in the biological sciences. Grants and funding were not an issue; what mattered was the quality of your ideas and work. Times have changed. The current economic downturn and several years of shrinking federal funding have placed the future of American science in jeopardy. Major centers of scientific education and research have become financially unstable and unable to move forward with initiatives begun over the past decade. Without a focused effort to further science education and basic research, we are likely to lose an entire generation of young scientists and science teachers. Such a loss will not easily be remedied when times improve economically, because the educational process is long-term. This would have major consequences for the economic viability and competitiveness of the country as well as our ability to address the world’s most pressing social, medical, and environmental problems, as the scope of science in the United States is unparalleled.
Three basic approaches might help to reverse this crisis: 1. Create a new type of teaching force for science and math with incentives such as tuition-loan rebates for those who become science and math teachers. Other incentives should be extended to those who devote themselves to basic research, such as grant programs that guarantee a sustained period of support. 2. Provide infrastructure funding to educational institutions that hire more science teachers and basic researchers. The funding should be directly proportional to the institutions’ commitment for salary support, providing a powerful incentive to further science teaching and research. 3. Improve the educational system by applying scientific methods and recruiting outstanding scientists to study how to create more effective schools. Bring the problem-solving approach of scientific research and development to bear on the practice of education. Barack Obama and Joe Biden have advocated expansion of the Peace Corps and Americorps. Establishing an education corps devoted to strengthening public schools through investigation and trial could have sweeping implications for generations to come.
Bruce A. Yankner ’76 is a professor of neurology and pathology at Harvard Medical School, and a world leader in the study of aging.
What advice would you offer President Obama?
Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to “Advice,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, 194 Nassau St., Suite 38, Princeton, NJ, 08542. We will publish reader suggestions on our Web site at paw.princeton.edu, plus a selection in a future issue of PAW.