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."
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R) said the senator from Illinois can claim a personal mandate but should not assume the results signified an ideological election.
"You have to distinguish between the Obama machine -- ACORN, labor unions, MoveOn.org -- and the personality, which is Oprah Winfrey, Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett and Colin Powell," he said. "One of the most important decisions Obama will make is which Obama will govern."
That tension may roil an Obama presidency, but throughout his campaign, Obama has shown an ability to ride above those contradictions and potential conflicts. Through his ability to inspire Americans of different backgrounds and with disciplined, mostly mistake-free campaigning, Obama outmaneuvered and outlasted his rivals. He will need to employ those same skills as president to expand the coalition that elected him.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said Obama's mandate, as put to the voters, was a mandate to be a different president than George W. Bush. "That covers a lot of ground," he said. "There's certainly a mandate in terms of leadership style to have a politics that is more inclusive."
Garin argued that Obama enjoys a mandate for a more activist government that can regulate the excesses of the private sector. "But having said that," Garin said, "the public still has a lot of skepticism about the efficiency and effectiveness of government."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, argued that "no crisis should go to waste," meaning that the depth of the country's problems create an opportunity for the next president to offer big solutions on issues like energy and health care.
Emanuel is under consideration to become White House chief of staff, but he said his comments represented his own view, not Obama's. Though arguing for a bold approach, Emanuel cautioned against attempting to do everything at once. Finding the balance between a big and ambitious agenda and a legislative strategy to reach those goals over time will be Obama's responsibility.
Obama advisers, who agreed to talk about the future only on the condition that they not be quoted, said they are well aware of the dangers of interpreting the results as a mandate for unabashed liberal government.
One top adviser recalled what happened after the Democrats regained control of the House and Senate in the midterm elections and suggested they were ready to end the war in Iraq and enact a bold Democratic agenda. "We're all wary of the lessons of 2006, when expectations were raised so high prematurely," he said.
This adviser said Obama knows that he must move strategically to balance his pledges to govern inclusively while promoting a progressive agenda. "It's up to him to educate people on a strategy to move forward." Part of that strategy, he added, will be persuading people to be patient about the pace of change.
Obama advisers take seriously the senator's rhetoric about governing in a bipartisan fashion. They are ready for potential conflict with some Democratic constituencies or with some liberal Democrats in Congress, whose pent-up demand for action may clash with Obama's priorities, and are prepared to say no.
Obama has yet to truly confront the realities of a domestic platform that calls for significant increases in federal spending and a fiscal problem that has worsened dramatically. Given the projected spending of $700 billion for a financial rescue package and hundreds of billions more for an economic stimulus package that Democrats say is needed, the deficit could approach $1 trillion or more next fiscal year, even without any of Obama's other priorities.
In the final stages of the campaign, Obama spoke in generalities about scrubbing the federal budget line by line, looking for cuts. He has yet to identify specific reductions, but soon after he is sworn in, his administration will have to present an alternative budget. At that point, Obama will reveal more of who he is.
If that budget appears pinched, he could face a revolt among congressional Democrats, especially in the House. "My own hunch is that Obama is smart enough not to want to govern as a liberal," said Peter Wehner, a former Bush administration official. "But he is going to have hydraulic pressure from the House and Senate to do that."
John Feehery, who was a top aide to former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said House Democrats represent a political threat to an Obama presidency. "His real challenge is to understand that the House leadership does not necessarily lead you into a reelection," he said.
Clinton and Carter both had difficult relationships with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, but Galston said Obama may be able to negotiate a productive relationship because he did not challenge Democratic orthodoxy on his way to the White House.
An Obama adviser said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have given every indication of wanting to have a cooperative relationship with Obama. "The mistake executives make is setting an agenda and expecting others to follow along," the adviser said. "I think they are open and eager to be a partner with Barack in setting an agenda and executing it."
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.