Imagine if George W. Bush were still president.
Don't gag. But ponder what might have happened at the G-20. Would Bush have arrived with the same-old agenda and urged other nations to cut taxes for individuals and corporations and to resist the calls for too much reregulation of high-flying financiers? Would he have also advocated, as his fellow Republicans in Congress are doing these days, spending cuts in order to restrain government deficits? And if so, would he have been laughed out of London?
The problem in years past was that Bush, no matter what any foreign leader thought of him, led the biggest economic and military power on the globe. So he could not be laughed off. (See Iraq). Barack Obama, on the other hand, is appreciated, not merely tolerated. And though Bush had entered office promising a certain amount of humility in foreign affairs (and then dumped that vow after 9/11), Obama actually demonstrated how such a pledge could be put into practice. During a Thursday press conference, he said:
We exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize that the world is a complicated place and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries, when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility and recognize that we may not always have the best answer, but we can always encourage the best answer and support the best answer.
Of course, Obama has an interest in lowering expectations. It will be tough enough for him to fix the economic problems of the United States; being responsible for the economic woes of the world would be an even heavier burden. But he's also acknowledging that in the changing world, the United States is no longer the be-all-and-end-all, that it has indeed lost some global clout. A sneeze from the United States can still turn into a cold in other parts of the planet. But America may not be able to function as the world's economic doctor. (Hey, look at our health care system.) Having tapped out all that credit created by the speculation-driven housing bubble, it no longer has the demand to fuel a global rally.
Obama also showed a measure of maturity when he conceded that the steps the United States and the G-20 nations are taking may not work. At that press conference, ABC News' Jake Tapper asked him, "Can you say with confidence that the steps the G-20 nations are taking today...will help the world, or will prevent the world to avoid a depression or a deeper recession?" And Obama replied:
In life there are no guarantees; in economics, there are no guarantees. The people who thought they could provide guarantees, many of them worked at AIG, and it didn't work out so well.
Shades of JFK.
In London, Obama worked cooperatively and collaboratively with 19 other nations to reach an agreement under which these countries will engage in more than $1 trillion in lending to spur growth and will develop tough new regulations for banks and financial firms. Sure, some of this was left vague. But this accord was better than bickering and no resolution. "We never thought we would have such an agreement," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said. Obama may not be solely to credit for the agreement. But it's clear that his presence at the meeting--did you see this picture?--juiced up the proceedings, as he led the G-20 gang to a good-as-can-be-expected (if not a little better than that) deal.
So what would Bush have done? The good news is, we can only guess.