Can Obama Truly Deliver?

President-elect Barack Obama waves after giving his acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) AP Photo/Morry Gash

This story was written by U.S. News & World Report's Kenneth T. Walsh.


President-elect Barack Obama. Few thought it was possible when the self-described skinny, freshman senator from Illinois with a funny name announced his candidacy for the White House nearly two years ago. Now, he stands on the threshold of the most powerful office in the world after shattering the myth that a nation built in part on the shameful history of slavery and segregation was not ready to elect a black man as its leader. But on Election Day, Americans voted massively for change and a historic fresh start. They swept out the Republicans, who have held the White House for the past eight years, and gave the Democrats not only the presidency but also expanded majorities in Congress that will guarantee a new era of activist government. "It certainly has the feel of a watershed election," says presidential scholar Robert Dallek. And it's clear, Dallek adds, that "the pressure on Obama to deliver instantly is going to be enormous. People want this to be a time of unity, of coming together, and of consensus."

Whether he will succeed remains to be seen. But Obama's achievements so far are impressive. The middle-class son of a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas, he came from far behind to capture the Democratic nomination from the powerful political machine of Hillary Clinton. He raised more money than any candidate in history, about $700 million. He eased doubts that at 47 he was too young and inexperienced to do the job and won the public's trust. He ran an extremely disciplined, methodical, and tech-savvy campaign--an indication of how he would preside over the White House--and, with charisma and eloquence, stayed true to his message of change and conciliation and the relentless defense of Middle America. In winning 52 percent of the vast popular vote of 133 million, he became the first Democratic president to break though 50 percent since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Through it all, Obama seemed preternaturally calm and confident--traits that will be invaluable as he prepares for his inauguration on January 20, when he takes office with Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as vice president. For starters, there is the global financial crisis to deal with. There is also the burgeoning federal deficit, which will limit his ability to spend money, a healthcare system in distress, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, continuing threats from terrorists, crumbling roads and bridges, and a nation unsure about its future.

Trying times. Historians compare the situation to the one faced by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he took office amid the Depression and rising national-security threats in 1933. FDR focused above all on restoring America's confidence, and that will be Obama's approach, too. The president-elect said as much in his stirring victory speech on Election Night before tens of thousands of jubilant supporters in Chicago's Grant Park. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," he declared.

One thing that the two-year campaign revealed about Obama is that he is "capable of learning," says political scientist William Galston, a former White House adviser to Bill Clinton. Month after month, he became a better candidate, more nimble, more pragmatic, but always committed to helping the middle class, says Galston, adding that "he hit his stride at exactly the right time."

What put him over the top, in the view of political strategists of both parties, was his steadiness during the economic meltdown that started September 15 and resulted in a tidal wave of concern and anger over the troubled economy. Voters tended to blame the incumbent president's party for the mess, which was bad news for Republican nominee John McCain. And voters were impressed with Obama's calm and common sense during the crisis, while McCain seeed erratic and impulsive. That's when McCain lost his advantage as a tested commodity and a "safe choice," and Obama got beyond concern that he was too inexperienced and a risky choice, according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

McCain also made a huge mistake when he de-emphasized Obama's inexperience and argued that he, not Obama, would be the real candidate of change. This premise seemed to lack credibility, given that Obama was the first serious black presidential candidate in history and had made "change" his mantra for nearly two years.

Experience. The idea of Obama as a national-security neophyte remained worrisome for voters to the end, but McCain further muddied his message when he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. She was popular with conservatives on social issues but she lacked national security experience, making it much more difficult for McCain to criticize Obama credibly on this score. "They walked away from their brand and their strength," Greenberg says. "That was a colossal error."

In the end, Obama won all the states carried by Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004 and added eight states carried by Republican George Bush that year, including Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Mexico.

Exit polls showed some remarkable shifts in the electorate. Race, long a source of deep divisions and bitterness, was considered a wild card, with some pollsters wondering if a significant number of white voters would reject Obama simply because he is African-American. But 9 out of 10 voters said race wasn't an important factor for them.

About 62 percent of voters said the economy was their biggest concern--far and away the most important issue. About 19 percent listed Iraq or terrorism, and 9 percent said healthcare. Only 35 percent approved of the Iraq war, which McCain had pledged to win and Obama promised to end as quickly and responsibly as possible, giving Obama an advantage. More than 8 out of 10 Americans believed the country was headed in the wrong direction, and 7 out of 10 disapproved of President Bush's job performance--a fact that deeply hurt McCain's Republican candidacy because of guilt by association.

Now that he is moving toward governing rather than getting elected, Obama might be wise to follow Roosevelt's example in more areas than confidence building. "You've got to be flexible," Dallek says. "The realities you are dealing with are always changing." He adds, "you need to go about it in a very practical, pragmatic way. It's like a quarterback. You try one play and, if it doesn't work, you try again. The New Deal was a series of experiments." Adds Al From, chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council: "Obama's most important thing is to keep what is essentially his big promise--the promise that allowed him to catapult over Hillary Clinton and win the nomination and the general election--that he would bring change and a postpartisan politics." To that end, From says, Obama should name Republicans to key cabinet positions, perhaps by keeping Robert Gates as defense secretary, at least for a while, or installing GOP Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, a foreign policy specialist, as secretary of state. "That would send a message that he is serious about a new kind of politics," From says. Notes Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary for Bill Clinton: "There is absolutely no trust up there [on Capitol Hill]. The first thing they need is trust."

Obama's first public move, however, was to offer the job of White House chief of staff to Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, a fierce partisan and former senior official in the Clinton White House. This suggested that Obama realized that he needs some experienced hands at his side. The Emanuel pick also showed that he wants the advice of a tough-minded insider who has no qualms about confronting hisadversaries, so Obama can take the kinder, gentler approach.

On October 31, Obama told CNN that he would set five immediate priorities: "stabilize" the financial system, move toward energy independence, enact some form of healthcare reform, grant middle-class tax cuts, and strengthen the education system. But he made clear that the nation has entered an era of limits because the economy is in such bad shape.

Obama plans to meet with members of Congress before his inauguration to let them know that everyone will have to scale back their expectations from government, including requests for earmarks or special projects. He told CNN he would explain to the legislators that, "Right now, we can only do those things that are absolutely necessary." If the legislators balk, Obama advisers say he will use his network of millions of supporters and donors around the country to create support for his agenda through phone calls, letters, and E-mails--much as Ronald Reagan (using different means) did with his conservative network in the 1980s.

"The defining question is, are they governing from the center or are they governing from the flank of the party?" says McCurry. The initial indications are that Obama will start in the center. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, a strong liberal, said she wouldn't pressure him to move left. "The country must be governed from the middle," Pelosi told reporters on November 5. One reason, Democratic advisers say, is that so many new members of Congress are centrists that the party won't be able to hold its majority in 2010 if it lurches left with meddlesome social programs and vast new spending schemes.

But conservative activist Grover Norquist argues that Obama "is very liberal--and divorced from understanding Middle America." He says Obama won't be able to resist pent-up pressure from congressional liberals on a variety of issues, including their desire to raise taxes in order to spread the money to various social programs, pulling out of Iraq as quickly as possible, liberalizing abortion laws, and stopping needed domestic energy production. "He will be the goalie. His job will be to sign the bill or veto it," Norquist says, adding that "he won't be president. He will be signer in chief."

Republicans are particularly worried that the Democrats will enact legislation that will hurt the GOP's ability to protect business or win future elections. Among the sore points are " card-check" legislation, making it easier for unions to organize, and a measure to allow instant registration on Election Day. Norquist predicts that after 100 days Obama will look like "a crazy left winger." Obama aides insist that the new president will take a balanced approach, but they concede that he is committed to activist government. "This Republican project has exhausted itself," says David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist and a longtime confidant. He adds, "we are at the end of a historical epoch that started with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980." Now, he says, the political pendulum has swung away from the conservative, antigovernment, deregulation philosophy that Reagan ushered in, with Bill Clinton's two-term presidency representing an "interregnum" in an otherwise Republican era of White House mastery. "The tide of history is on our side," Axelrod says. Obama, having campaigned as the candidate of change, is turning the page from a GOP emphasis on less government and reduced oversight of business and shifting toward using government to improve everyday Americans' lives, he says.

Ending the war. Just as telling, Obama's foreign policy challenges will be fully as serious as the domestic ones. "The next president is going to inherit a significant series of conflicts and challenges from President Bush on the international scene, and they've only been made more complex by the global financial crisis," a senior Obama adviser says. First on the list, the ade says, is Obama's desire to "begin the process of responsibly redeploying the U.S. forces from Iraq at a pace that is safe for our forces." To that end, Obama is looking for ways to put pressure on the Baghdad regime and offer it incentives to take on more of the security and governing burdens. "Senator Obama's view is that after five years, in a war that has lasted longer than World War II, we ought to be more catalytic as opposed to passive," the adviser says. "Instead of waiting for them to get their act together, let's give them some encouragement and incentive to get their act together." The details are yet to be worked out. Obama also wants to strengthen U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, where the war has not gone very well in recent weeks, and he will try to improve operations with allies against anti-American fighters in Pakistan.

After reeling off a series of international problems ranging from Iran's nuclear ambitions to continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the adviser added: "I don't think that the next president has the luxury of deciding that we will focus on only one or two things. That's the nature of the beast that he will inherit, so there will be a premium on him being ready and able to organize oneself effectively and manage multiple imperatives."

But Obama will start off with a huge amount of international goodwill and will get a "global honeymoon," says political scientist Galston. People in other countries will see his election as an atonement for Bush's unpopular policies, and it will cause "other nations to think more highly of us," Galston argues. Obama's enthusiastic reception by 200,000 Germans at a speech in Berlin earlier this year showed his potential to convince other countries that the go-it-alone style of Bush has ended.

There will be other big changes from the Bush era, especially in personality and lifestyle preferences. Gone will be Bush's mountain bikes. The "in" thing will be playing hoops with the president, which Obama does to relax. (He has an impressive 3-point shot, although his drives to the hoop aren't nearly as smooth as they once were.) Friends say he even wants to have a basketball court installed on the South grounds. Obama and his wife, Michelle, have much different tastes than the Bushes in music, preferring rock, hip-hop, and classical to country. And the Obamas, both of whom are lawyers, are voracious readers of books, periodicals, and newspapers, while President Bush is less literature-minded, to put it gently. The Obamas also have two preadolescent daughters who require and welcome more parental attention than the Bushes' twin teens did.

On a personal level, Obama also seems to possess what historians call an unflappable, confidence-inspiring "presidential temperament." Says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff to President Reagan who endorsed Obama a few days before the election: "One of the hallmarks (of presidential leadership) is being comfortable within your own skin, that you trust your instincts." Duberstein says Obama passes the test.

Jerry Kellman, a longtime Obama friend from Chicago, says the president-elect is remarkably conciliatory toward his adversaries. "He doesn't hold grudges," Kellman says. 'He's ready to move on from the get-go ... He has respect for people he is working with." This could help him build coalitions in Congress or with interest groups that initially oppose him, Kellman suggests. In fact, when dealing with obstacles to his agenda, Obama aides expect him to compromise in his own particular way. His pattern, allies say, will be to scale back each of his priorities, such as healthcare reform or promoting energy independence, rather than abandon any of them completely. For example, instead of moving aggressively toward universal care, he might settle for insuring everyone under 18 years old so no child would be without health insurance. "He will do bits and pieces of ll of them, rather than cancel any of them," says a prominent Democrat who knows him well.

This may not be as bold or courageous as his supporters would want. But Obama reserves the right to amend his agenda and take a detour or two, depending on the circumstances. In the end, he could be a lot more pragmatic than either the liberals or the conservatives think.


By Kenneth T. Walsh

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