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.
Robert Gibbs, Obama's chief spokesman, who is expected to be named soon as White House press secretary, says Obama won't be rushed into making his appointments. His guiding standard is pragmatic rather than ideological as he seeks advisers who will put the middle class first and have "a philosophy of getting things done." Gibbs argues that Obama himself is the change agent, and he will make sure subordinates take new approaches no matter what their backgrounds are. Gibbs compares Obama to a new quarterback on a football team of veterans. "The guy calling the plays" makes the difference, Gibbs says.
And while Obama will focus relentlessly on helping the middle class and strengthening the economy, he doesn't want Americans to think he can work miracles. Gibbs says the 100-day framework often used to evaluate a new president's achievements—which started with Franklin Roosevelt's hyperactive first three months in 1933—may be outmoded because today's problems are so numerous and complex. Gibbs says 100 days is an "arbitrary time period" that probably doesn't apply anymore.
Obama aides are still talking about a wide-ranging agenda—starting with a "rescue" package for the economy that includes a middle-class tax cut. His blueprint for action also includes initiatives to expand health insurance, encourage energy independence, improve education, and fight global warming, and a variety of executive orders rolling back Bush administration policies, including a reversal of limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He also plans, aides say, to reverse the Bush administration's refusal to give California the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles in an effort to curb global warming and increase fuel efficiency. And in foreign policy, there are Obama's twin goals of removing U.S. forces from Iraq and beefing up American military strength in Afghanistan, which the president-elect considers the real central front in the war on terrorism.
Republican veterans of past administrations say Obama's inexperience as a manager could get him into trouble if he piles too many items on his start-up agenda. "The system can't take that much," says a prominent GOP strategist with close ties to the Bush White House, and Congress and the White House could easily get overloaded. The strategist says what Obama should do is concentrate first and foremost on the economy and leave the other issues for later.
Reaching out. But it is his appointments that have made the most news so far. Republicans, for example, remain wary that he is assembling a left-wing team and that he will govern as a liberal ideologue. The choice of Emanuel as chief of staff set off alarms within the GOP because of his record as a fierce partisan. Democrats familiar with Obama and Emanuel say that he has mellowed since his time in the White House and realizes that his new role will require more conciliation. Obama has shown a willingness to reach out to adversaries, taking a leaf from Abraham Lincoln, who brought prominent critics into his White House inner circle after he took office in 1861. This approach is described in historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which Obama has read and says he admires. Beyond this, Obama says he has spent "a lot of time" reading Lincoln's writings since his election because "there is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."
To further his outreach, he has met with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated in the Democratic presidential primaries, and talked to her about possibly serving as his secretary of state. And on November 17, he met with unsuccessful Republican nominee John McCain at Obama's Chicago transition headquarters to discuss how they could work together. This kind of outreach is what many voters say they want from the new president, according to the polls. Obama also urged Senate Democrats not to hold grudges and to allow Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an "independent Democrat," to continue as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee even though Lieberman endorsed and campaigned for McCain in the election. The Senate Democrats went along with the president-elect's wishes in an unusual gesture of conciliation that bodes well for Obama's relationship with his Capitol Hill colleagues.
"He does well in teams," says Jerry Kellman, a longtime Obama friend who worked with him years ago as a community organizer in Chicago. "He creates teams well and gets them working together well." Kellman adds that "it goes a long way toward diminishing any sense of isolation," which afflicts many presidents and other political leaders as they make tough, lonely decisions. At the same time, Obama has "enormous discipline" and believes that when a situation is fluid, it's vital for a president to "make sure he has as much knowledge as possible before he jumps in," Kellman says. This would be in contrast to President Bush's emphasis on his instincts and trusting his "gut" in assessing what to do during difficult times.
Some analysts say the pathway to success isn't all that difficult to figure out, and it has little to do with the people Obama names to his government. The three most important reasons voters gave for supporting Obama in the election were his promises to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, cut taxes for the middle class, and expand healthcare coverage, according to a survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg for Democracy Corps. Key Obama advisers say these will be his top priorities as president, perhaps with all three concepts wrapped together in a massive economic "rescue package" that he would submit to Congress during his first 100 days. It may be an arbitrary time frame, but Obama knows that his first months in office will be crucial to his long-term success, and he aims to make the most of them.