Current Issue

Jan.28, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 7


Dear Mr. President

Published in the January28, 2009, issue

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?

 Princetonians, clockwise from top left: Mohsin Hamid ’93, Raymond Arsenault ’69, John Bogle ’51, Josh Kornbluth ’80, Bruce A. Yankner ’76, Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, Danielle S. Allen ’93, and Ruth Gais *74
Princetonians, clockwise from top left: Mohsin Hamid ’93, Raymond Arsenault ’69, John Bogle ’51, Josh Kornbluth ’80, Bruce A. Yankner ’76, Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, Danielle S. Allen ’93, and Ruth Gais *74

Bend toward justice


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.

Build confidence and the economy


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.

Post Comments
Tell us what you think about
Dear Mr. President
Enter the word as it appears in the picture below
By submitting a comment, you agree to PAW's comment posting policy.
CURRENT ISSUE: Jan.28, 2009
Web Bonus Links
Student counsel
Listen to Princeton students as they offer advice for President Obama.
'Citizen Josh'
Watch a video excerpt of Josh Kornbluth '80's monologue about his conversion to political activism