Obama's Burden: Keeping His Word

By David M Brown and Mike Wereschagin | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Obama's Burden: Keeping His Word


David M Brown and Mike Wereschagin, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


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. …

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