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Obama's burden: Keeping his word

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By David M. Brown and Mike Wereschagin,
Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008
 

President-elect Barack Obama will take command of the executive branch with an economy teetering on a precipice, a military waging two wars and legions of supporters who believed him when he said things would change.

On Friday, in his first news conference since winning the race for the White House, Obama said his transition team would closely monitor developments in the reeling economy.

He vowed to take action on the economy "immediately after" taking office in January, and urged Congress to pass economic stimulus legislation, including help for small businesses and an extension of unemployment insurance. Such a package will "be the first thing I get done" in office if Congress doesn't act before the end of the year, he said.

President Bush on Monday will welcome Obama to the White House for a rite of passage that often is an emotional moment for the incoming and outgoing presidents. Although the formal transfer of power doesn't happen until Jan. 20, the "psychological transfer occurs then," former Vice President Walter Mondale once said.

At the peak of celebrations Tuesday night, Obama sought to temper the soaring expectations of the more than 65 million Americans who voted to put the freshman Illinois senator in the White House.

Pointing out "the enormity of the task that lies ahead," Obama said: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but ... I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you -- we as a people will get there."

Even so, his first three months or so in office could show how effective he will be at keeping his promises, which include guiding the nation toward energy independence, health care reform, middle class tax cuts and an improved education system.

Obama will be forced to juggle his priorities to fit the nation's precarious finances, said John C. Fortier, a political columnist, author and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

"The promises he's made add up to a fair amount. He's going to have to address some of these fiscal problems, a stimulus package and financial regulations. To get to things like health care or a middle-class tax cut, which are expensive, he's going to be limited by our fiscal situation in a serious way," Fortier said. "Obama doesn't have the ability to please all or meet all expectations."

On the foreign front, Obama promised to end the war in Iraq while strengthening efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and crush the havens of international terrorists.

The expectations of about 57 million Americans who voted for Republican John McCain are harder to gauge. Many no doubt are hoping Obama will steer a more moderate course than the "far left lane of politics" McCain accused the Democrat of favoring.

David M. Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a nonpartisan group that offers research and advice to presidents, said the center talked with both the McCain and Obama organizations during the campaign. An Obama aide has relayed material from the center focusing on presidential transitions to the president-elect, he said.

"A president has been elected who started out from the left. In his campaign, he began to ease toward the center," said Abshire, an ambassador to NATO during the Reagan administration. "We've still got a country that is right of center. So Obama's job, if he's going to be successful, has got to be to govern from the center out."

A president's first 100 days can set the template for the entire administration, notes presidential scholar Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

"If you do poorly in that hundred days, it sets a poor image and Congress can think you are a weak president. That's bad even if you have a united government, because they will roll over the White House," Zelizer says.

A smooth transition between administrations is equally critical, according to John P. Burke, a political science professor at the University of Vermont with expertise in American politics and the presidency. Burke is author of "Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice."

"Successful transitions can't guarantee a successful early presidency, but a poorly executed transition is pretty much a recipe for a problematic early presidency," Burke said.

By announcing his transition team one day after he was elected, Obama demonstrated he knows this, Burke said. His swift appointment of a White House chief of staff, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., further demonstrates it.

"In terms of their organization, they have apparently taken the steps before Election Day to get themselves up and running very quickly," Burke said.

The 100-day period has become a benchmark for assessing presidents.

It stems from Franklin Roosevelt's initiatives in the early phase of his presidency after he was elected in 1932 during the Great Depression. From March 9 to June 16, 1933, Roosevelt engineered a series of programs and gained approval from Congress for 15 major bills, giving birth to the New Deal.

Ronald Reagan used his early period in 1981 to drum up public support and bipartisan backing in Congress for his across-the-board tax cut as an economic stimulus, a centerpiece for Reagan's domestic agenda, Zelizer points out.

On the other hand, missteps and political miscalculation during Bill Clinton's early days gave rise to the partisan rancor that hobbled some of his major initiatives, such as health care reform. Obama must realize the "honeymoon" phase -- a narrow window of opportunity for key legislation -- passes quickly, Zelizer said.

In an interview with CNN the Friday before he was elected, Obama was asked to name the top priorities of his domestic agenda relating to taxes, health care, education, energy policy and immigration.

Not much "can be accomplished if we continue to see a potential meltdown in the banking system and financial system," Obama said.

"So that's priority No. 1: making sure the plumbing works," he said.

Obama probably will be forced to put on a back burner some of his plans, such as tougher environmental regulations, that would push the economy into deeper trouble, Burke said.

Americans have told pollsters for months that the economic downturn is their biggest concern.

"He needs to push a stimulus package, in the short run," said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

With Democrats controlling Congress, Obama has a chance to use his early months in office pushing things such as aid to state and local governments for public works projects, and increased federal money for food stamps and unemployment aid, Trumka said.

The benefits are threefold, said Bert Rockman, chairman of the political science department at Purdue University.

"It's pork to members of Congress, a payoff to the unions, and a stimulant to the economy," Rockman said.

Obama might push for a tax bill along the lines of his campaign promises -- a middle-class tax cut with higher taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year, Rockman said.

It won't happen, however, just because Obama asks for it.

"Congress will have a lot of say about that," Rockman said.

Obama has promised to convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after he's inaugurated, and have them plan to reduce troop levels in Iraq.

"On the international front, Obama may take some steps to signal that the Bush doctrine is dead and that the U.S. will be more focused on multilateral engagement," Purdue's Rockman said. "This is no easy matter either, since one of the reasons the Bush doctrine emerged was because multilateral engagement was often difficult. It does require persuading and accommodating -- traits that Bush did not have in abundance if at all."

Michael Fullilove, an analyst at Brookings Institution and the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, said the international community and U.S. allies anticipate and hope that Obama will move toward "multilateralism and pragmatism" in foreign affairs.

Obama is "no pacifist but he has sent strong signals that the (center) of gravity of America's international policies needs to shift away from reliance on force," Fullilove wrote in a recent article for the Sydney Morning Herald.

The risks posed by Obama's more diplomatic approach might be "that America's adversaries would mistake his reasonableness for weakness," Fullilove said.

Bush essentially has given over strategic responsibility in Iraq and Afghanistan to Gen. David Petraeus, Rockman said.

"Obama would be well-advised to continue that. Petraeus is clearly the sharpest knife in anybody's drawer," he said.

Afghanistan will be a trickier problem for the new president, analysts say.

Obama has pledged to increase troop strength there, but he's "going to want a commitment out of European allies to put in some more troops, too." Obama will have a tough job selling that in Europe, Fortier said.

 

 
 


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