- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barack Obama proved he could smash America’s ultimate racial barrier and deliver a soaring speech, such as his inaugural address, which both mesmerized and inspired the masses.

But starting Wednesday, history will judge President Obama not for the color barrier he hurdled but for the competency he demonstrates. And those who marveled at the delivery of his oratory will now demand he deliver on his promises.

The task will not be easy in a turbulent world dominated by war and economic collapse, especially for a young president who on Tuesday promised action as far-reaching as harnessing the sun, raising health care’s quality while lowering its costs, and enacting fixes “bold and swift” for an ailing economy many believe will take years to heal.

Mr. Obama acknowledged Tuesday there are those who have doubts about the magnitude of his plans. “There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” he said. “Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

But many of the historical triumphs he cited in his address took decades to secure. His presidency can only last four or eight years.

Ronald Reagan, the last president who left office at the height of his popularity, was considered a successful president because he dealt with two big issues: pulling the country out of a deep recession and fostering the collapse of the Soviet Union.

If Mr. Obama can just fix the economy, put the country back on the road to prosperity and slay trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, he will go down in history as one of our noteworthy presidents. But he believes — and right now apparently the country does, too — that he can do much more.

The latest Gallup Poll found last week that nearly two-thirds of Americans are confident he will turn out to be a successful president. “Obama is the beneficiary of more goodwill than his recent predecessors, and expectations of him are extraordinarily high,” polling analyst Karlyn Bowman said.

But many Americans remain deeply pessimistic about the economy and their own circumstances. A Zogby Interactive poll released last week says less than 5 percent are feeling positive about the economy and describes only one-third as positive about their own financial situation.

Promises are the mother’s milk of American politics, but it is difficult to remember an incoming president who has made as many as Mr. Obama has over the course of his campaign, including fixing Social Security’s and Medicare’s mounting insolvency, looming like Mount Everest on the political horizon.

After years of an unpopular administration beset by war, recession and natural disaster, Mr. Obama has promised a new era of competence that would grapple with and cure the nation’s most insoluble ills.

He said he would “not only create new jobs,” but lay a new foundation of growth. He would build the roads and bridges, install new electric grids and lay the digital lines that “bind us together.”

He promised to restore science “to its rightful place,” unleash “technology’s wonders,” “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories,” “transform our schools and colleges and universities. All this we can do. And all this we will do.”

It was a breathtaking performance of monumental proportions, one he had successfully road-tested across the land. He believes he inherits a country ready for a big-spending revolution to tackle all of the difficulties and that he can tackle them all. Trillion-dollar deficits and the political intractability of Washington will soon test his mettle.

Mr. Reagan assumed office saying that government is the problem, not the solution, and Bill Clinton said the era of big government is over. But Mr. Obama wants to move that debate onto an entirely different plane: competence.

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” he said.

“Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

The electorate will soon begin keeping the official scorecard.

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