Hard Choices And Challenges Follow Triumph

In downtown Chicago, tens of thousands of supporters young and old gathered in Grant Park to celebrate Sen. Barack Obama's election night victory.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

After a victory of historic significance, Barack Obama will inherit problems of historic proportions. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated at the depths of the Great Depression in 1933 has a new president been confronted with the challenges Obama will face as he starts his presidency.

At home, Obama must revive an economy experiencing some of the worst shocks in more than half a century. Abroad, he has pledged to end the war in Iraq and defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He ran on a platform to change the country and its politics. Now he must begin to spell out exactly how.

Obama's winning percentage appears likely to be the largest of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide and makes him the first since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to garner more than 50.1 percent. Like Johnson, he will govern with sizable congressional majorities. Democrats gained at least five seats in the Senate and looked to add significantly to their strength in the House.

But with those advantages come hard choices. Among them will be deciding how much he owes his victory to a popular rejection of President Bush and the Republicans and how much it represents an embrace of Democratic governance. Interpreting his mandate will be only one of several critical decisions Obama must make as he prepares to assume the presidency. Others include transforming his campaign promises on taxes, health care, energy and education into a set of legislative priorities for his first two years in office.

Obama's victory speech before 125,000 people at Chicago's Grant Park touched the themes of unity, reconciliation and hope that were at the heart of his candidacy. Asking for the help of all Americans to tackle the country's most serious challenges, he prepared supporters and opponents alike for setbacks, disappointments and the need for patience before they succeed.

"The road ahead will be long," he said. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America -- 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."

Obama's ability to manage relationships with Democratic congressional leaders, with Republicans and with impatient liberal constituencies with agendas of their own will have a lasting impact on his presidency. Can he, for example, fulfill his promise to govern in a unifying and inclusive way yet also push an ambitious progressive agenda?

The first African American elected to the presidency, Obama built his victory with a new Democratic coalition. To the party's base of African Americans, Latinos and women, Obama added younger voters and wealthier, better-educated ones. That helped him raise his support among white voters -- a traditional weakness of recent Democratic presidential candidates.

This new coalition helped redraw the electoral map, adding normally Republican states in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountains to the states won by Al Gore in 2000 and John F. Kerry in 2004. How he retains their support and enthusiasm as he begins to govern will also influence how successful he may be.

William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who served as domestic policy adviser during President Bill Clinton's first term, predicted a battle over analogies among Democrats seeking to influence Obama.

Some, he said, will argue that conditions require a major infusion of government activism and intervention, as in 1933. Others will point to the start of Johnson's first full term in 1965, which ushered in the Great Society and an era of liberal governance. Still others may point to 1993, the start of Clinton's first term, when Democrats pushed another liberal agenda, only to find that the country was resistant. Within two years, Democrats lost their congressional majorities.

Galston argued that 1993 may be closest to the mark, although he noted that the economic problems are far worse than those Clinton faced. But he said there was little evidence heading into yesterday's balloting that the country had taken a sharp left turn. "It's hard to say substantively what mandate Obama and the Democrats have gotten," he said. "They've gotten a chance to make their case."

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