National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Change: It’s Coming

WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama is getting a lot of advice on how to govern when he takes office on Jan. 20.

So I’ll add my two cents, for what it’s worth.

He should move first to stop the painful housing foreclosures. Then he should bailout Detroit’s bankrupt auto industry.

What’s good for the nation’s banks is good for General Motors and Ford Motor Co. The auto industry saved the country in World War II by re-gearing its assembly lines to the production of thousands of planes and tanks.

President Bush is balking at helping the strapped auto industry unless the reluctant congressional Democrats approve a trade agreement with Colombia. Democrats are proposing a $25-billion bailout for the automakers. Detroit has 9 percent unemployment.

We have great expectations of the nation’s first black president in American history. Right now he seems to be moving toward the comfortable center even when bold moves and compassion are required.

Oddly, Sen. John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, and his former running mate have accused Obama of being a “socialist” who wanted “to spread the wealth around.” But the Republican ticket was silent when the Bush administration rushed government aid to Wall Street and ended up buying into some banks.

Ironically, although Obama cut into line and pushed the heiress-apparent Hillary Clinton out of the presidential race, he has become heavily dependent on former President Bill Clinton’s White House staffers, naming Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff and John Podesta to head his transition team.

Reaching out for a bipartisan look, there are reports that Obama may ask Robert Gates to stay on as secretary of defense for a year or so. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke also may be tapped to continue at his post to provide continuity in the efforts to recover from the economic meltdown.

Obama does not want to appear too audacious or promote his own economic recovery plans too prematurely. After all, he notes we have only one president at a time. But there is nothing to bar him from signaling his governing direction as he prepares to take over the most powerful post in the world.

There are rumors that Obama will officially renounce Bush’s policy of unprovoked preemptive wars, ask Congress to eliminate tax cuts for the richest people in the country and push for stem cell medical research.

The question is, why should Obama wait 16 months to stop the war in Iraq especially since he brags that he was against the war even before he was in the Senate? The war is not going to become more internationally legal the longer it lasts.

The war has taken thousands of lives so far and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says it will cost $3 trillion before it ends.

It’s time for Obama to rethink his policy toward Afghanistan as well instead of listening to the generals who should have remembered the fate of the British and the Russians who previously sought to subdue people in that difficult terrain.

He also should assure the country he will tear up any executive directive that gives a go-ahead to torture. And there is no way he can justify use of secret prisons abroad and denial of habeas corpus to detainees. Obama also should reject warrantless spying on Americans.

He also has to understand that the world is counting on him to be a peacemaker who can cross racial and cultural lines like no other national leader.

I remember an interview Bobby Kennedy gave to the Voice of America in the 1960s in which he predicted the U.S. would have a black president in 30 years. He was short on the timing but presaged the historic change in the nation’s politics and psyche.

Obama will have a lot on his plate when he moves into the White House, mainly the sinking economy and two wars. He was able to keep up his popularity by remaining serene in the face of political attacks. He came across as above it all.

Now it’s all his. He asked for it.

(c) 2008 Hearst Newspapers