- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Two years ago, a freshman senator with almost no record but much audacity began an improbable campaign to become president. Today that journey ends with his taking the oath as the 44th President of the United States of America, the first African-American and biracial person to hold the office, and the fifth youngest. Barack Hussein Obama has made history and changed American race relations and attitudes in the process. What he has accomplished may seem difficult, but actually it is the easy part compared to what looms after noon today.

Mr. Obama secured his party’s nomination, and then the presidency, by running an extraordinarily focused and disciplined, tech-savvy campaign, marked by a confidence and an almost serene demeanor that inspired both hope and change - even if he rarely articulated what that hope and change meant. His main primary opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton and general election opponent John McCain might have reprised the famous 1984 Wendy’s ad, “Where’s the beef?,” but candidate Walter Mondale tried that to no effect then, and it would have made little difference in 2008. Sen. McCain was doomed after his response to the Sept. 15 financial meltdown looked herky-jerky and then-Sen. Obama looked the calm and cool man he seems to be. Americans saw in that, and in his soaring oratory throughout the campaign, that Mr. Obama’s voting record as the most liberal in the entire U.S. Senate, and his extreme inexperience (despite writing two self-aggrandizing books already, he has never held executive position or established a track record), were somehow immaterial. Doubts melted away amid the telegenic charm. An astonishing record $745 million in campaign spending (having baldly gone back on his promise to use public funds, unlike Sen. McCain) also helped win the day, with most of the money coming from fat cats and corporations; the 26 percent of donors who gave $200 or less was about the same as President Bush had in 2004, contrary to the populist spin. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s inexperience in foreign affairs was a factor, as was Sen. McCain’s de-emphasizing Sen. Obama’s inexperience and arguing (somewhat ludicrously, in retrospect, as he muted his maverick reputation) that he and not Sen. Obama was the true candidate of change.

Mr. Obama secured 53 percent of the popular vote (just 2 points better than George W. Bush in 2004 and about even with George H.W. Bush in 1988), inspiring a top-bottom coalition of relatively rich and educated white suburbanites and relatively poor and undereducated central-city blacks; his focus on the middle class had lesser impact, and his appeal to youths, while real and certainly enthusiastic among supporters, was barely above the support percentage that George W. Bush enjoyed. His Democratic Party increased its congressional majority, but by far less than earlier expectations; the winners were mainly Republican-sounding moderates and conservatives. There was almost no shift in power at the statehouse level, and while voters pulled the Democrats’ levers in national elections, there was almost no change in ideological thinking - conservatives constituted 34 percent of voters, unchanged from the last election; liberals 22 percent, up only one percent; and moderates 44 percent, down just one percent. Mr. Obama should, and probably does, realize that the vote was somewhat visceral - support the minority candidate to make a beneficial historical change; stick it to President Bush (and his perceived surrogate, Mr. McCain); and show disgust with Republican scandals, spending excesses and (too often) incompetence by rejecting the GOP brand. The voters sent a message, not a mandate. But, beyond that, Barack Obama earned, and got, the presidency because he was inspirational, idealistic and most closely identified with American hopes, including hopes for change, whatever that entails.

As indistinct as Mr. Obama’s message seemed to us, he did make 510 specific campaign promises, according to the St. Petersburg Times, which has a list of them all (including one to buy a puppy for his daughters) on www.politifact.com. The paper will keep track of the status of each promise throughout the Obama administration. The status of the “Obameter” as Mr. Obama enters office is 2 promises kept, 0 compromises, 0 broken promises, 1 stalled promise, 9 in the works, and 498 with no action yet, which is understandable since he is not yet in office.

The presidency Mr. Obama inherits today is wildly different from what Mr. Obama thought it was when he announced his candidacy with little money and few friends light years ago, on Feb. 10, 2007. His plan to take the left flank in the Democratic primary, most reflected in his pledge to get U.S. forces out of Iraq, has been overtaken by events, courtesy of Mr. Bush, Gen. David Petraeus and the surge. After the primary, Mr. Obama became a centrist for the general election (which is where the battle is usually won for the presidency), and even a center-right president-elect, judging at least from pronouncements and appointments. The economic disintegration has buried almost all other issues in the public mind. On Oct. 31, shortly before the general election, Mr. Obama ticked off to CNN five immediate priorities: stabilizing the financial system, moving toward energy independence, enacting some form of health-care reform, granting middle-class tax cuts, and strengthening the education system. While he made it clear that the country is in an era when there are limits to what can be done due to the poor state of the economy, he advocates an $800 billion stimulus package, on top of the second $350 billion bailout package enacted earlier. That’s $1.15 trillion of spending, and Mr. Obama says that 10 percent of the three to four million jobs he expects to “save or create” will be government employees, or up to 400,000 more functionaries. We’ll keep our powder dry for today, but it’s hard to do so. And don’t get us started on his tax measures, such as keeping some of the “death tax” and raising taxes on some individuals and businesses. Or his “card-check” legislation replacing secret ballots that would pressure workers to join unions. And et cetera.

Mr. Obama enters office with his party in control of the legislative branch, and that may tempt him to push ahead with his agenda as the first postmodern populist, following a 28-year lull from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush (Bill Clinton notwithstanding). He may be tempted to emulate big-government social activists like populists John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His cabinet selections and actions to date, however, show a centrist orientation and a cautious approach to issues. Commendably, even liberal Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi acknowledged that “the country must be governed from the middle.” Presidents typically accomplish most in the honeymoon period that occurs in the earliest stages of their administration, when politicians and the public alike - not to mention foreign governments - are most willing to give the new guy a chance. For whatever programs he espouses, Mr. Obama will not hesitate to use his online community of 10 million people; the social network he developed on such sites as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook; his e-mail marketing; and blogs to rally the troops, of which a left-wing fringe is already grumbling. Let ‘em. If Mr. Obama and Republicans reach out to each other in a sincere effort to reach decisions that are best for the country (and the devil is always in the details), good things can happen for the nation, regardless of the ideologues and fanatics of any stripe. One need look no further than President Clinton’s early years in the White House to see the dangers of overreaching - and the disaster to the Democratic Party that followed. One caveat is that while Obama lieutenants say he will take a balanced approach to governance, they also say he is committed to activist government.

Mr. Obama becomes president because he won a big majority (60 percent) of the 45 percent of voters who call themselves moderates. More than 60 freshman members of Congress elected in 2006 or 2008 come from GOP-leaning districts. Democrats remember the 1994 shellacking they took when they tried to overreach. These facts should mitigate against Mr. Obama wandering back to the extreme liberal days prior to his Feb. 10, 2007, declaration of candidacy. And, in fact, we believe Mr. Obama has been a good learner along the way, and realizes he must now represent all of the United States, and in doing so practice the art of the possible. As a senator, he has built strong relationships on Capitol Hill (as has the new vice president, Joe Biden), something Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as former governors and outsiders, could not.

Mr. Obama takes the oath today with a 60 percent favorable rating, up from 53 percent on Election Day, according to a Zogby poll. But he will be the president of us all, and surely he has close to 100 percent support from Americans in moving the country to new heights. Whatever the political disagreements, they can be debated and with good will resolved another day. This day, and every day, all Americans should hope and pray for his success, and with it our country’s success.

The two are intertwined. Good luck, Mr. President.


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