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The Task Ahead

By David S. Broder
Thursday, November 6, 2008

The celebration of Barack Obama's victory was genuine and heartfelt, as it should have been. No one who has lived in this country and knows its history can be insensitive to the significance of his election.

Symbolically and substantively, it sends a message here and abroad about the distance we have traveled from our segregated, racist past.

As John McCain acknowledged in his gracious concession speech, whatever one's partisan preference, the rise of this talented and eloquent black man to the highest office is worth celebrating for what it says about this nation, its people and our democracy.

But Obama himself made the important point when he told the cheering crowd in Chicago's Grant Park that "the task that lies ahead" is a daunting one and that all he has won is the right to tackle it.

Probably no one in our history has been elected into leadership of a nation simultaneously fighting two wars, grappling with a global economic breakdown and facing huge challenges in its medical system, its energy system and its fiscal system.

The first question Obama will have to answer is whether he can summon the best resources of both parties to confront these tests.

I think the answer is yes, but only Obama can provide definitive proof.

On Tuesday night, I asked two of the wisest and most broad-minded people I know in Washington what they thought of Obama's prospects. One of them, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, opposed Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year. The other, retiring Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, was an early and ardent supporter of McCain.

Both of them are very upbeat about what comes next.

Dodd, who endorsed Obama after his own candidacy fizzled, said the Illinois senator "doesn't know Washington that well" after only four years in the Senate, "but he's got Joe Biden with him."

The vice president-elect, with decades of Senate experience and a host of friendships, can help smooth his way, but more important, Dodd said, "Obama has a wonderful temperament. He knows he has to build real relationships for anything to happen. He doesn't have them now, but his instincts are perfect."

LaHood was equally enthusiastic. He recalled that the same week Obama was elected to the Senate, he phoned LaHood and asked if he could come visit him in Peoria -- in order to build a relationship that permitted them to work together on Illinois projects. "This year, we had six bipartisan dinners," LaHood said. "I think he knows that he has to be bipartisan to deal with these problems. And I think he will surround himself with people like [Chicago congressman] Rahm Emanuel, who feel the same way."

These insiders can judge Obama better than I can, but I think they read him correctly. The expanded Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate may tempt Obama to consider a mirror-image of George W. Bush's strategy of mobilizing his own party on Capitol Hill and simply bulling bills past the minority party.

But that approach really didn't work for Bush after the first year or two. I think there is much wisdom in a comment that Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts made on "Meet the Press" this week. He said that the difficulty of the challenges facing Washington is such that the aim should not be to pound out narrow partisan victories but to negotiate for "85-vote majorities," endorsed by all but the most extreme liberal or conservative senators.

After the hyper-partisanship of the Bush years, I think there are probably many members of both parties who would welcome the kind of approach that Dodd, LaHood and Kerry advocate.

But it will be up to Obama to signal that this will be his way of doing business, as well. The earlier he does it, the better.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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