Magazine article The Spectator

You Think Abraham Lincoln Had It Tough?

Magazine article The Spectator

You Think Abraham Lincoln Had It Tough?

Article excerpt

Short of wearing a stove-pipe hat, Obama could not make his desire to be compared to Abraham Lincoln any more obvious. He plans to travel to his inauguration via the same route that Lincoln did, be sworn in on the Lincoln Bible and eat lunch off replicas of the Lincolns' White House china. Michelle and the girls must have wondered if he was going to change their name when he took them to the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday night.

Obama has set a high bar for himself; comparisons with America's greatest president are rarely favourable to an incumbent.

Bush and Clinton both chose to set less daunting presidents as their benchmarks, Reagan and Kennedy, respectively.

But the President-elect has never been shy about setting ambitious goals. The night he sealed the Democratic nomination, he confidently declared: 'I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs for the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.' Can Obama live up to his own words?

Realistically, making it through the next four years without any major disasters would, in the present circumstances, be a great achievement and almost certainly enough to get him re-elected.

No president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has faced such a daunting set of challenges. Domestically, Obama inherits a recession that is at risk of turning into a depression. Consumer confidence is at an all-time low -- this year the deficit will probably be larger than total federal government spending in 2000, and by next year government debt will have spiked to 60 per cent of GDP; little wonder that the markets now think there is a 6 to 10 per cent risk of a US government default.

Internationally, a bellicose power that is a sworn enemy of America and its closest allies will probably be a nuclear state by the end of Obama's first term unless action is taken to stop it. In Pakistan, the nightmare combination of a weak state, Islamic extremism, terrorists and nuclear weapons has become a reality. Peace in the Middle East seems as far away as ever and the collapse of the world economy threatens the stability of Asia and Latin America.

If the challenges are greater than those faced by Obama's recent predecessors, so are his assets. He enters office with record approval ratings, a clear mandate and a comfortable majority for his party in both houses of Congress. At the start of his presidency, Obama will be as empowered by the nature of his election as Bush was hamstrung by his.

Perhaps most valuably, Obama has what FDR called in his first inaugural address that 'broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency' that is implicitly accorded to the president in times of crisis.

The first order of business for the Obama administration will be the economy. In his first month in office, Obama will ask Congress to appropriate well over a trillion dollars -- $350 billion as the second part of the bank bailout and a stimulus package that will cost at least $775 billion over two years. (To put that in perspective, the Iraq war has cost $597 billion. ) The question is not whether Obama will get the money but how much political capital and time he has to expend to do so and how many compromises he has to make along the way. …

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