Barack Obama’s Formidable Task

Liberals see him as an ally; moderates see him as one of theirs; they may both be correct.

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By any standard, it was an election that hit the reset button: a new electorate of younger, more diverse, geographically widespread voters who turned out in huge numbers to elect the nation's first African-American president in a time of economic crisis and war. Whew. Can't get much more breathtaking than that, unless you consider what President-elect Barack Obama has on his plate once he is sworn in. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt—whose New Deal worked America out of its Great Depression—would swoon. An economic meltdown. Two wars. An ever present terrorism threat. And, by the way, no money. Just unimaginable debt.

But, as Obama would say, there is hope. The president-elect has Democratic majorities in Congress. Those who rode into town on his coattails are beholden. He won in all parts of the country, even in the once impenetrable, ruby red West. He has the goodwill of the American people—and a substantial majority of the popular vote not seen by any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson. He will be judged against a president whose unpopularity has driven him into irrelevancy and a dysfunctional GOP trying to figure out how to avoid the same fate. Even so, he has the instinct and good sense to reach out to those still skeptical of his ascension, as he made clear on election night. "To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn—I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too."

Big, bold fight. Obama enters the White House as a political mystery: Liberals see him as an ally; moderates say he's one of theirs. They may both be right. By conviction, Obama may be more liberal; but by temperament, he's more cautious, a conciliator. And his responsibility, in these scary times, is to figure out a way to do the near impossible: keep his ambitious campaign promises by winning on a big, bold fight or two (like energy or healthcare) without breaking the bank or completely bypassing the opposition. It's a formidable threading of the needle.

It's also a trick that Ronald Reagan performed, because the numbers forced him to reach out to congressional Democrats. Obama doesn't need Republicans in the same way, but he could get some of them because, right now, it's in their own self-interest to help get something done. The public has asked for bipartisanship—and action. The clear mandate for change demands it.

All of which means, ironically, that Obama's new mantra could well become "No you can't." While the new president wants to—and should—do something big, there's also got to be a calibrated response to the large, pent-up expectations of his empowered Democratic congressional majorities. They've been waiting a long time for this, and they'll be exerting maximum pressure to spend wildly. Obama needs his own "third way" and the guts to force his compatriots to meet him there. After all, he's the guy who picked the lock on the door and led them back to power.

Those running Obamaworld know that a new president's early actions are seen through a magnifying glass. They understand they can't, as Bill Clinton's former chief of staff Leon Panetta told me, "start with a gays-in-the-military" agenda item as Clinton did, a move that backfired and led to chaos. It's all about setting the tone, Panetta cautions. "Do you reach out to Republicans? And what can you do quickly to show it's a different ballgame?" They're ready to do it with a slew of executive orders to show there's a new gang in town—with ideas on the table like closing Guantánamo, strengthening lobbying ethics rules, fixing some broken part of Medicare. They know they then need to think big early on, because Republicans are bound to eventually desert them on the budget, if not everything else.

Right now, however, there is a political vacuum in Washington, and the new president has the opportunity—and the responsibility—to fill it. If he's attacked by both the left and the right, fine. Obama has made this moment in history. He has started a new political era, anointed by a new political generation. His dynamism has sent the static GOP to the couch, looking old, in search of a new identity and coalition. The Democrats once grandly promised to reinvent government, and that seemed like a big idea. Yet now that Obama has reinvented the Democrats, it somehow seems so small.