BLOG POST Catching Up to Obama

January 26, 2009
Despite reports that incoming White House staff found their new digs in the technological dark ages the official White House website has undergone something of an Obama makeover (and in a clear sign that my computer is way behind the times, it still doesn't recognize "Obama" in its outdated Microsoft spellchecker). I'm pleased to see the global development agenda moving forward on the new White House site, but would like to see more of both Obama's presidential campaign promise and the Democratic Party Platform's commitment to create a 21st century U.S. development agency as part of the broader U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy. The foreign policy tab of the "agenda" section of the site that includes topics near and dear to the hearts of global development aficionados. To quote just a few:
  • Achieving Energy Security: Obama will put America on a path to energy independence by investing $150 billion in renewable and alternative energy over the next ten years -- an investment that will create millions of jobs along the way. He'll also make the U.S. a leader in the global effort to combat climate change by leading a new international global warming partnership.
  • Expand our Diplomatic Presence: To make diplomacy a priority, Obama and Biden will stop shuttering consulates and start opening them in difficult corners of the world -- particularly in Africa. They will expand our foreign service, and develop our civilian capacity to work alongside the military.
  • Fight Global Poverty: Obama and Biden will embrace the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty and hunger around the world in half by 2015, and they will double our foreign assistance to achieve that goal. This will help the world's weakest states build healthy and educated communities, reduce poverty, develop markets, and generate wealth.
Also included under the foreign policy agenda is a section on bipartisanship and openness that takes two critical steps toward striking a "grand bargain" between the executive branch, Congress and the American people on U.S. foreign policy:
  • Consultative Group: Obama and Biden will convene a bipartisan Consultative Group of leading members of Congress to foster better executive-legislative relations and bipartisan unity on foreign policy. This group will be comprised of the congressional leadership of both political parties, and the chair and ranking members of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence, and Appropriations Committees. This group will meet with the president once a month to review foreign policy priorities, and will be consulted in advance of military action.
  • Engaging the American People on Foreign Policy: Obama and Biden will bring foreign policy decisions directly to the people by requiring their national security officials to have periodic national broadband town hall meetings to discuss foreign policy. Obama will personally deliver Your Weekly Address via webcast.
These are strong first steps on the road to "smart power" in U.S. foreign policy. The attention to global poverty and the bold commitment to double foreign assistance deserve much praise, especially in the current financial context. But I was disappointed not to see the same strong commitments to building a 21st century U.S. development agency that existed in Obama's presidential campaign platform and the Democratic Party Platform. In his initial global development strategy, Obama said he would coordinate and consolidate PEPFAR, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and other foreign assistance programs housed in more than 20 executive agencies into a restructured, empowered and streamlined USAID with highest caliber leadership and a central role in the formulation and implementation of critical development and related foreign policy strategies. Similarly the Democratic Party Platform promises to modernize our foreign assistance policies, tools and operations in an elevated, empowered, consolidated and streamlined U.S. development agency. The continued attention to fighting global poverty and increasing foreign assistance resources should be paired with efforts to ensure those resources get the biggest bang for the buck -- something difficult to do in the current fragmented aid system. CGD senior fellow Steve Radelet who co-chairs the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network -- a group of development, foreign policy and private sector groups offering recommendations of how to modernize U.S. foreign assistance -- says as much in a recent Reuters article by Lesley Wroughton and Susan Cornwell:

With the financial crisis, resources are going to be difficult to come by for everybody, but that does strengthen the case for streamlining and making every dollar for foreign assistance more efficient and building a strong professional agency.

So, the new administration may have scored a victory for the smart phone last week, but I'm hoping they will soon say a little more about their strategy to achieve a "smart power" victory on


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.