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Panel: No Time to Waste for New President

January 21, 2009 – President Barack Obama entered office on Jan. 20 with one of the highest approval ratings for an incoming president in recent history -- but can afford to waste no time in tackling America’s many critical problems, according to a panel of Georgetown University experts.

As Judy Feder, professor in the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, wryly noted, the Obama administration “will have to walk and chew gum at the same time” from its first day in power.

Four Georgetown experts in finance, environmental studies, health care policy and international relations gathered on Jan. 16 for a roundtable discussion moderated by Paul Begala, affiliated professor of public policy at Georgetown and former counselor to President Bill Clinton. Meeting only days before Obama took the oath of office, the panel indicated that strong leadership would be key for the new administration’s success.

All four of the issue areas are intertwined, but all need individual attention as well, according to the professors.

“The first thing Obama will need to do, and he’ll need to do it in his inaugural address, is to say we’re putting the past behind us. We’re sending a new signal,” said Tony Arend, professor of government and foreign service. “We are going to close Guantanamo, we are going to pay attention to international law … we are going to pay attention to how we define torture. The first thing the president can do is make that statement.”

The international community “breathed a collective sigh of relief” at Obama’s election, but that good will may be quickly squandered without definitive action on global issues, said Arend, who also serves as director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program.

Chief among those issues are the country’s environmental practices. Timothy Beach, professor of geography and geoscience in the Walsh School of Foreign Service’s program in Science, Technology and International Affairs, said the new administration must keep its campaign pledges to make the environment a top priority while fighting perceptions that green practices harm the economy.

Addressing the credit meltdown and plummeting consumer confidence should be Obama’s first item on his to-do list, said Reena Aggarwal, professor of finance in the McDonough School of Business. “If you don’t get the economy going, it affects people in so many ways, whether you’re thinking about health care or international issues,” she said.

The professors agreed Obama’s agenda is daunting. But they said the new president inspires levels of excitement unseen in Washington and around the nation since President Ronald Reagan’s first term.

Begala noted that Washington is now the world’s power, military and financial capital. He urged Georgetown students learn all they can while at the Hilltop and tap into the resources available within the university and city.

“What a wonderful time to be at Georgetown, what a wonderful time to be in Washington,” Begala said. “This is just such a terrific moment in such a remarkable place … so let’s maximize it.” 

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