Few presidents have taken office facing higher expectations than Barack Hussein Obama. For the record millions who will fill Washington to hear his inaugural address Tuesday and the rest of the watching world, he is nothing less than America’s new prince, all the more charmed for his improbable rise and the mess he inherits.
He will speak as the 44th president from the Capitol that slaves helped build, transcending in his own being America’s hoariest, ugliest divide. His name alone, inherited from his African father, shatters tradition. His oratory is expected to surpass all but Abraham Lincoln’s, a comparison he invites with his own allusions to historical symbolism. This is a man who announced his candidacy from the spot in Springfield, Ill. ,where Lincoln gave his “house divided” address.
Although technically a Baby Boomer, born in 1961, Obama nonetheless marks the end of the Baby Boom generation’s domination of U.S. politics. For the youth he has inspired, his inauguration is as iconic as Woodstock was for the Boomers. He slew the Clinton dynasty and then beckoned its leader into his fold. He evokes a new post-partisan world that transcends tribal divisions of Democrat and Republican – a new openness to good ideas that sheds the worn liberalism of his party and the small-government theology of the Ronald Reagan era.
“It feels like we’re coming out of the Dark Ages into a whole Renaissance period,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel. “The fear is that the expectations are that one person can be magical, but these are still human beings running this country and subject to all of the frailties of mankind. But there’s a spirit of hope here, a spirit of excitement among us all.”
Wielding two BlackBerrys, Obama promises a 21st century government as smart as it is big.
And it will be big.
Events have conspired to hand Obama an opportunity to forge a government expansion of a scope he could not have imagined when he announced his candidacy in May 2007, when the Iraq war was the central issue. He takes office with both parties welcoming his plan for nearly $800 billion in fresh federal spending to stimulate the economy. It will range across a Democratic wish list from food stamps to alternative energy to health care, with a strong dollop of tax cuts for good Republican measure.
Such previously unthinkable sums, now a mere starting point, were made possible by none other than his Republican predecessor, President Bush, whose patrimony of a $700 billion bank rescue and a $1.2 trillion deficit broke the fiscal sound barrier and numbed the capacity of such numbers to shock. Add to that an alarming recession, and Obama has an opportunity to reshape government in a way Lyndon Johnson might have envied.
“Throughout America’s history, there have been some years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare,” Obama said in a national address Jan. 8. “Then there are years that come along once in a generation – the kind that mark a clean break from a troubled past, and set a new course of action.”
Echoes of Reagan
Nearly three decades ago, former President Ronald Reagan surveyed a similarly grim economic horizon from the Capitol and declared, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Obama’s retort: “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy.”
Having demonstrated at age 33 both rare audacity and talent with a precocious autobiography, he rose from the obscurity of the Illinois state Legislature in sleepy Springfield just four years ago. Serving as a vessel for the disparate hopes and dreams of others, he won the presidency with 53 percent of the popular vote. A month later his approval rating hit 78 percent. His challenge now seems to be forestalling his admirers from carving him into Mount Rushmore before he sits at his Oval Office desk.
When he does, he must right the economy, remake the financial system, end the war in Iraq, win the war in Afghanistan, enact universal health care, end U.S. dependence on foreign oil, prevent another terrorist attack, stop global warming, and restore U.S. competitiveness and moral standing. Along the way, he will need to end the ban on gays in the military and reform immigration law to keep grumblers quiet.
Some suspect he may fall short. “There are just so many institutional constraints that affect the president these days,” said Gary L. Rose, author of “The American Presidency Under Siege.” These include the “iron triangle” of vested interests, Congress and the bureaucracy, and a media that has been enraptured by Obama but feeds on conflict.
Few red flags
Yet there exists a surprising consensus among presidential scholars that if any human being can pull off such feats, Obama may be “the one,” a term his critics use to mock the absurd expectations. To an uncanny degree, Obama at least appears to bring to office the very personality traits and temperament that have made past presidents succeed, combined with a scale of challenges that allow them to soar, or crash.
And he has raised few of the red flags that foretold past presidential failures, from Richard Nixon‘s nervous paranoia to Bill Clinton‘s indiscipline to George W. Bush’s lack of intellectual curiosity to Jimmy Carter‘s obsessiveness.
Carter, a former engineer, used to intervene in the scheduling of the White House tennis court and even chase down leaks on the White House grounds, said Steven Rubenzer, a psychologist and author of “Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House” and co-director of the Foundation for the Study of Personality in History. He groups presidents by personality type into “dominators,” “introverts,” “good guys,” “innocents,” “actors,” “maintainers,” “philosophes” and “extraverts.”
Although he lacks the measurements to analyze Obama properly, Rubenzer said the 44th president looks to be a prototypical “philosophe,” a group that tends to be inquisitive and have broad-ranging interests. Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison fall into the group.
“Those sorts of people tend to be open minded, they tend to be relatively moderate and nice people, as opposed to most politicians,” Rubenzer said. “They tend to be reasonable, they tend to be accommodating to various viewpoints, they’re broad-minded. Philosophes as a whole tend to make very good presidents. In fact, they are the most successful type.”
And despite his former smoking habit, Obama “appears to be calm and cool and collected and nondefensive.”
Deniz Ones, an industrial psychologist at the University of Minnesota who has studied presidential traits, said Obama has many that lead to success in the presidency or any pursuit: intelligence, including not just intellectualism but judgment and “smarts,” openness to new ideas, an ability to influence and inspire others, competence and dependability.
“On the important traits I have identified as relevant, he fares very, very well,” she said.
A telling moment was when Obama refused to strip a Senate committee chairmanship from Joe Lieberman, a former Connecticut Democrat who campaigned for Obama’s GOP rival, Sen. John McCain, said Jerald Podair, a historian at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
“The best presidential temperament is balanced, calm, no panic, no vendettas, a short memory for slights and wrongs from the past, a sense of trying to be right but not always being sure that you’re right,” Podair said.
“As Machiavelli said over six centuries ago, the greatest quality that any politician, leader or prince can have is flexibility,” said Thomas Whalen, a political scientist at Boston University.
Obama is highly intelligent, but temperament trumps intelligence, as Nixon and Carter prove, and as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it when he described former President Franklin Roosevelt as a second-rate intellect, but a first-rate temperament.
It remains to be seen if the whiff of Chicago political scandals that have brushed but not felled Obama ever taint his presidency. Obama also lacks experience, yet ran a campaign that changed forever how presidents will be elected, and a transition experts describe as textbook. Experience is no guarantee of success. Herbert Hoover and George H.W. Bush had perhaps the best resumes of anyone who has sought the office.
“He’s come up so hard and so fast, and at so many stages, apart from that one aborted run for Congress against Bobby Rush, it was an amazingly confident and sure-footed rise,” said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics who has written five books on the presidency. “It’s sort of unbelievable that someone who got on the national map by delivering the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention would win the presidential race in 2008. And now he’s coming up at a time when the ducks are all lined up for producing a huge amount of consequential policy.”
The luck factor
For presidents, bad luck can be good luck; transformative presidencies are not forged by tranquillity. Great presidents often followed failures: Jefferson after John Adams, Lincoln after James Buchanan, Franklin Roosevelt after Hoover, Reagan after Carter.
“The circumstances are so dire that Obama will probably be given a honeymoon of almost unprecedented proportions,” said Dan Schnur, a former aide to California Gov. Pete Wilson who has worked on several presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. “He is taking office as more of an unknown quantity than any president in modern history, not just because he has a relatively short political biography, but because the circumstances have changed so dramatically in such a short time.” Obama did not campaign on a stimulus package, but has “put together one of most ambitious policy overhauls we’ve ever seen over the course of several weeks.”
The Obama governing style is already apparent. He has been all over the public stage with press conferences, speeches and Sunday television interviews, and put his Saturday radio addresses on YouTube. He has maintained his groundbreaking Internet operation, a promise to leverage his base for policy battles. He has selected an administration fixed less on ideology than expertise, exhibiting what some call a “radical pragmatism.”
He has visited Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill and picks up the phone to call members, interrupting and flattering California Sen. Barbara Boxer with two calls just last Monday as she was briefing reporters.
He charmed and debated Washington’s top conservative pundits at an evening dinner at columnist George Will’s Chevy Chase, Md., mansion. Such overtures were unthinkable during the Bush years, when policy was dictated from the White House and relations even with Republican leaders were rocky, and from the Clinton years, where Democrats sank a giant health care plan concocted in the White House without their consultation.
Obama will need his community organizing skills to corral notoriously unruly Democrats, who unlike their GOP brethren do not march readily. They have their own ideological divisions, along with hundreds of their own ideas that have collected 14 years of dust during GOP control of the White House or Congress. Yet that experience has left them chastened. Obama will find them less complacent about their dominance than when they roughed up former President Clinton during his first two years in office.
Republicans, for their part, are in no position to argue for fiscal rectitude, and their electoral drubbing and continuing stream of retirements has softened edges.
“We’ve been through enough elections, let’s govern for awhile,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. “I think most of us want to do that. That’s why we ran for these jobs. President-elect Obama has made a very conscious, not only visual but substantive attempt to reach across the aisle and I thank him for that. I’m looking forward to working with him and his team. I think there’s a genuine desire to get something done because the issues we face are so big.”
Obama has set about ferociously dampening expectations, describing the economy in the grimmest terms. Former UC Berkeley economist Christina Romer, who will head his Council of Economic Advisers, already projects 7 percent unemployment two years from now, even with a large fiscal stimulus. And as Japan’s experience shows, there is every chance that the stimulus may not work, which would leave Obama with a bad economy and another trillion dollars in debt.
“It is a risk to be a first-term president and have the term ‘trillion-dollar stimulus’ hanging around your neck,” said Michael Wagner, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska. “Because if it doesn’t stimulate the economy in four years, it’s been nice knowing you.”
And for all Obama’s insistence on changing Washington’s ways and not throwing money at old programs, “remember people like (Rep.) John Murtha are still in his party,” said Podair, referring to the notorious pork-barreling congressman from Pennsylvania. “Those are the kinds of people who do want to throw money at things.” Combing budgets for savings is “just not what Democrats do, I’m sorry.”
Nor do African Americans, who see in Obama’s election an enormous triumph, expect he will end institutional racism or even directly target their concerns. “I don’t think African Americans expect much more than Americans in general,” said Robert Smith, a political scientist who specializes in African American politics at San Francisco State University. “There is an unemployment problem in the African American community on a long-standing, structural basis, but I don’t think there are any expectations he’s going to address this directly. He didn’t promise to do any such thing, and most African Americans are aware that if he attempted to do that, he would not have the American people as a whole with him.”
Yet whatever the future holds, in terms of sheer iconography, Obama’s inauguration “transforms the aesthetics of American democracy,” said Peniel Joseph a professor of history and African American studies at Brandeis University. His own being “makes you think of the past, it makes you think about America in its antebellum years, and the way in which the prospect of a black president is incongruent with much of the nation’s history.”
That includes the reality not just of Obama but of wife Michelle and their two young children, Malia and Sasha, living in a White House where the only African Americans who lived there previously were servants.