CHICAGO—Barack Obama doesn't take office for nearly two months, but expectations for his presidency are soaring. Congressional offices have been deluged with requests to attend his inauguration on January 20, an event that could draw more than a million people to Washington and break all records for attendance. Nearly two thirds of Americans believe Obama will change the country for the better, according to the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll. Majorities say he will stabilize the financial markets, improve race relations, make the United States safer from terrorism, lessen dependence on foreign oil, reduce global warming, and withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq without causing a major upheaval in that country. Sixty-two percent of voters think Obama will be a good or great president, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
Living up to the excitement may seem to be a daunting, even scary proposition. "Expectations are going to be so high that he's setting himself up for failure," says a former adviser to President George W. Bush who argues that Obama's agenda is too all-encompassing. "If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority." But Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker says Obama is doing well: "He's taking his time. His approach is really measured." For example, Baker adds, "He is approaching the economy in a typically cerebral fashion, thinking it through instead of the usual fire-drill approach, and this conveys orderliness and reassurance."
What the country is learning is that Obama is a man of supreme confidence who wants to get off to a fast start by capitalizing on what he sees as an irresistible momentum for action. At times, he sounds like a reassuring Franklin D. Roosevelt. At other times, he is a Ronald Reagan-style sunny optimist, and often there are echoes of the eloquent and inspiring Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes, he tries to combine all three personas. And through it all, he is clearly well aware of the mounting pressures on him to succeed and the fact that millions have invested in him their hopes and dreams.
"The challenges that we're confronting are enormous, and they're multiple," he told CBS's 60 Minutes in an interview broadcast November 16. "And so there are times during the course of a given day when you think, 'Where do I start in terms of moving—moving things forward?' And I think that part of this next two months is to really get a clear set of priorities, understanding we're not going to be able to do everything at once, making sure the team is in place, and moving forward in a very deliberate way and sending a clear signal to the American people that we're going to be thinking about them and what they're going through."
While veterans of past Washington transitions say he is in danger of overreaching on the policy front, they seem generally impressed with his personnel choices so far. Overall, they say he is handling his transition to power nimbly, with the kind of discipline, savvy, and care that marked his successful campaign.
Inside and out. First off, Obama is constructing his cabinet and his White House staff with what he calls "deliberate haste." One of his biggest challenges is to deliver on his promise to bring change and a new, more conciliatory way of doing business in Washington while at the same time appointing people who know what they're doing. This latter goal means bringing in people with experience, and that leads inevitably to considering appointments from the eight-year administration of President Bill Clinton, the only Democratic administration that has held power since 1981.
Obama has been seeking advice from many former Clinton officials, including his incoming White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel (currently a Democratic U.S. representative from Illinois), and John Podesta, Obama's transition cochairman and a former Clinton chief of staff. He recently named former Clinton adviser Greg Craig to the key job of White House legal counsel. On the other hand, the president-elect is also relying on Washington outsiders such as campaign chief strategist David Axelrod and businesswoman Valerie Jarrett, both Obama confidants from his hometown of Chicago who were recently named senior White House advisers. This tightrope walk will continue, and Jarrett says balancing the need for experience with the desire to empower a diverse wave of newcomers is one of the biggest challenges ahead. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle," Jarrett says. Illustrating his balancing act, Obama has considered appointing two Washington insiders, former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder as attorney general and former Sen. Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services, and an outsider in Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of Homeland Security.