By Thomas Fitzgerald
RISMEDIA, January 20, 2009-(MCT)-When Barack Obama takes the oath as the first African-American president of the United States today, gazing down the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial, man and moment will meet in an instant remarkable for a nation once torn by slavery.
So history already has placed an enormous burden of expectation on Obama’s shoulders. But he also comes to power invested with the hopes and fears of an anxious nation facing the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression and fighting two foreign wars.
Adding to that, Obama made central to his winning campaign a pledge to pursue a new, post-partisan politics that would unite and renew the nation. His supporters already place him in the company of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, comparisons that Obama and his aides have encouraged.
“All of these things, coming from a lot of different directions, have converged at this moment,” said Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton University. “It speaks of a hunger for leadership and a hope that he will be ‘it.’ ”
The 47-year-old Obama, a tall, skinny lawyer who launched his campaign two years ago in Springfield, Ill., will be sworn in at noon on the Bible used in 1861 by Lincoln, another tall, skinny lawyer from Illinois. By coincidence, this year is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
A great deal of ink, television airtime and Internet bandwidth already has been consumed by overheated commentary that paints Obama as a kind of messianic figure.
“Obama comes in with an unusually deep reservoir of goodwill from the public, but he’s also carrying large expectations,” said Adam Schiffer, an assistant professor of political science at Texas Christian University. “Americans are looking for quick and obvious payoffs.”
With the economy reeling and unemployment rising, people are eager for dramatic action, pollsters say. Obama’s stratospheric approval numbers for his performance during the transition show the public is prepared to give the new president what pollster John Zogby called “a pretty free hand.”
In an Associated Press-GFK poll released Friday, for instance, 37% of the respondents said they believed Obama would be an “above average” president, and 28% said he would be an “outstanding” one.
“Even though people have an image of him as a Harry Potter who can wave a magic wand and solve everything, he’s not going to meet those expectations. No one ever does,” said Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University.
Still, he said: “I don’t think most are going to hold him to that standard. Roosevelt didn’t get out of the Depression until World War II, but what he did was get things moving in the right direction. If Obama can do that, it will be sufficient.”
Obama is pushing Congress to pass an $825 billion economic-stimulus bill by mid-February.
Since his election, Obama has sought to strike a balance in selling the need for action. He increasingly emphasizes the depth of the recession in order to tamp down unrealistic expectations. At the same time, he has conveyed hope to avoid further roiling the financial markets. He has had the advantage of not being held responsible for the mess-until Tuesday, when the buck stops at his desk.
“It’s not too late to reverse course, but only if we take dramatic action as soon as possible,” Obama said Friday during a campaign-style trip to an Ohio factory to sell his proposal.
“Recovery won’t happen overnight, and it’s likely that, even with these measures, things will get worse before they get better,” he also warned.
Obama and his aides have said they are going to borrow a page from FDR, who urged “bold, persistent experimentation” in the New Deal. The message that government is a positive force for change runs counter to the prevailing political philosophy of at least the past 30 years, dominated by conservative Republicans and centrist Democrats.
Aside from the momentous change of having a member of a racial minority in the White House, some historians believe that the shift in political attitude is the most significant byproduct of Obama’s election.
The open question, some said, is whether Obama’s winning coalition lasts beyond the moment, whether he changes politics for more than a term or two. Obama clearly has benefited from the recession and the unpopularity of President Bush.
“What does his election mean?” asked pollster G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. “Are we seeing the emergence of a new Democratic majority, a permanent coalition of liberal upscale professionals, African-Americans, Hispanics and young people?”
Obama has promised “a new kind of politics” focused not on the mechanics of winning, but on reasoned persuasion and dialogue. He also is building a permanent grassroots campaign apparatus to help him win. And his team is using polls to calibrate his message on the economic stimulus package. For one thing, Obama’s image-meisters call it the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan” instead of including the more clinical-sounding term “stimulus.”
Obama has had what analysts say is an unusually active transition. He had his economic team in place within days of the election, and the Bush administration consulted with his economic advisers about the financial-industry bailout and other steps it was taking. Just last week, Obama persuaded the Senate to release the second $350 million of the bailout fund, at one point attending the Senate Democratic caucus and working the phones to get an early victory.
“He’s got an agenda that has to be dealt with immediately,” said Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, noting Obama’s fast start.
Some media have covered Obama like the international celebrity he is, leading a few pundits to wonder whether the United States will have its first “paparazzi presidency.”
Even Republicans have been charmed, though many in the party’s congressional wing have expressed alarm at the size of Obama’s stimulus plan. The president-elect has met with GOP leaders in Congress and went to dinner at columnist George Will’s house for an off-the-record session with the nation’s most prominent conservative commentators.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R., Ky., even sounded apologetic as he explained his vote against releasing the bailout money.
“Again, I want to express my appreciation to the incoming administration for its responsiveness to Republican concerns,” he said Thursday. “Every time we asked a question it was promptly answered. So far, Republican interactions with the incoming administration have been quite encouraging and appreciated.”
Obama has had some stumbles, such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s withdrawal as the nominee for commerce secretary and controversy over the tax problems of Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner. And liberal Democrats questioned Obama’s commitment to the change he promised after so many centrist veterans of President Bill Clinton’s administration were picked for White House jobs.
In addition, Obama has modified some campaign promises. He now says he won’t push for the instant repeal of the Bush tax cuts because of the recession, for instance. He has said it will take time to withdraw from Iraq and shut down the prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
“He’s handled himself so cagily and so well in the transition,” Princeton’s Wilentz said. “He’s shown an ability to learn quickly and change course, which is what you want in a president.”
© 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.