- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

The president-elect has landed. Like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama on arriving in Washington headed immediately to the hotel to install his family where they wait to move first to Blair House and then across the street to the White House. When Lincoln misplaced his bedroom slippers, Henry Willard, proprietor of the Willard Hotel, scurried to find slippers big enough to accommodate Honest Abe. So far as we know, nobody at the Hay-Adams Hotel has had to attend to Mr. Obama’s cold feet.

Amid all the speculation about the president-elect’s transition priorities it became clear this week that he puts first things first, and first was seeing that his daughters were ready for their first day in a new school. He’s the daddy-in-chief before commander in chief, after all. Children concentrate the mind on what’s up close and personal. Malia and Sasha will remember all their lives the scenes outside the windows of their hotel, watching the crowd below watching for them, and observing their classmates trying to get a first look at the newest celebrities about to join them.

The Obama girls, like other girls in the West, are lucky. They could read the latest from Pakistan, where girls their age are forbidden to attend school. Taliban militants in the Swat Valley have banned education for all girls beyond the fourth grade, which disqualifies girl-children like Malia, who is already in the fifth grade. Educating girls, a mullah decreed, is “un-Islamic.” While Mr. Obama tends to the relationship with Pakistan and its contributions to the fight against terrorism, he’ll be aware of how repressive the Islamic culture can be in the places where terrorists hide.

The world is watching America for flashes of insight into the power change in Washington, and what they see should inspire. We wrote the first chapters of our history permitting the evil of slavery, but we eliminated it at great cost of blood and bitterness, leading 150 years later to the election of a black president whose children are not relegated to segregated schools.

Historically, the transition time between the election of a president and the inauguration is one of national vulnerability, but Mr. Obama can find this interim to be an asset. It gives him time for reflection before he must make judgments about dealing with events over which he has little control. For two more weeks, knee-jerk critics can blame President Bush for defending Israel’s right to defend itself. We already know about Mr. Obama commonsensical observation about Israel’s right to survival, offered during the campaign. “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night,” he told an audience in Israel last year, “I would do everything to stop that, and would expect Israel to do the same thing.” He has been criticized for not bringing his sentiments up to date, but silence can be useful. During the four-month interim between Lincoln’s election and his taking the oath of office he was scolded for his silence, too. But Lincoln was both intuitive and gifted in knowing when to speak and when not to speak. “[He was] gathering the intelligence and momentum needed to arm himself for the brutal challenge awaiting him,” writes Harold Holt in his book, “Lincoln: President Elect.” Mr. Obama frequently compares himself to Lincoln, so we can hope he’s using his time to similarly reflect.

By putting himself in the shoes of an Israeli father, as Hamas hurls rockets into homes where his children are sleeping, Mr. Obama defuses the criticism of those who say Israel’s defensive war is “disproportionate.” When he sits in the Oval Office he will be better prepared to mediate peace between Israel and a weakened Hamas. We weep for the children on both sides in this continuing war, but we remember that only Hamas uses children as human shields for the rocket launchers Hamas installed in their schoolyards.

The Wall Street Journal describes Israel’s invasion of Gaza as its version of the “surge,” observing that “Israel, with enemies on all sides, must maintain an aura of invincibility if it is to have any chance of peaceful co-existence.” Israel’s enemies are legion and they are poised to test Mr. Obama’s willingness to sit down with them without preconditions. But when he becomes President Obama he must remember the sleeping children of Israel.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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