WASHINGTON – Over and over, Barack Obama told voters if they stuck with him “we will change this country and change the world.” They did, and now their expectations for him to deliver are firmly planted on his shoulders. Many supporters greeted his victory with euphoria.
Impatient for a new American era and overcome by a black man’s historic ascension to the White House, they took his achievement for their own — weeping, dancing in the streets, blaring happy horns into Wednesday morning.
But campaign rhetoric soon collides with the gritty duties of governing, and hard realities stand in Obama’s way. The youthful president-elect appears to know this.
His victory speech emphasized humility far more than his fabled confidence, with remarks heavily leavened by references to the difficulties before the nation.
He declared “change has come to America” and closed with his “yes we can” campaign slogan, but not before speaking of the certainty of setbacks.
“The road ahead will be long,” Obama warned. “We may not get there in one year or even one term.”
Atop Obama’s challenge list is the global and domestic turmoil that he inherits. None of it is his own making, but it will shape his presidency before he lifts one finger.
The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Two wars in unstable, hostile lands. Other foreign hot spots such as Pakistan and Congo, nuclear standoffs with North Korea and Iran. A warming planet.
Then there are high health care and energy costs, sunken home values, wiped-out retirement and investment accounts. A federal deficit that is exploding as the nation throws money at its economic problems, sure to crimp Obama’s ability to spend his way to solutions. He also faces challenging political realities.
Obama has a largely liberal voting record and owes a debt to the left wing of the Democratic Party, which mobilized millions on his behalf. These folks embraced his promises to end the Iraq war, move toward universal health care coverage and address harsh terrorist interrogation practices.
But Obama also appealed to the broader electorate as a pragmatist who pledged virtually party-blind government. He will have to decide whether it is better to disappoint the more liberal troops out of the gate or wait until later.
“A lot of people are not going to be happy in the first two years,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.
Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way said that Obama is for centrist ideas such as middle-class tax cuts and seems likely to wait on contentious goals such as overhauling the U.S. health care system.
“We do believe him when he says he’s a moderate,” Bennett said. “We think that’s how he’s going to govern.”
Once the changeover happens, those who believed his “change we can believe in” slogan will want things to move quickly.
How might he go about it?
Even after nearly two years in the spotlight, little is understood about the 47-year-old first-term senator’s approach to leadership. His resume: community organizer, eight years as state legislator, and less than four as U.S. senator.
As a lawmaker, he has displayed a knack for working with Republicans on a handful of favorite issues. But he has devoted most of his time in the Senate to running for president. Unlike the past seven presidents, he was never a governor or vice president.
And unlike John F. Kennedy, the last senator to move directly to the presidency, Obama has not commanded troops in wartime. Personally, he’s a bit of an enigma, too. He did lead his campaign, a huge, nearly billion-dollar operation.
Throughout, he showed himself to have a detached, cerebral decision-making style that can sometimes seems out of sync with his natural charisma. He also showed himself to be a highly disciplined, CEO-style manager.
The leak-proof, tightly managed and orderly Obama operation mimics the Bush White House, and flows from “No Drama Obama” himself — a man so focused that he didn’t give himself a day off from working out, even the morning after winning the presidency.
In keeping with his measured demeanor, Obama did nothing flashy his first day as president-elect, keeping to breakfast with his family and a thank-you visit to campaign workers. All that said, he’s got plenty of things in his favor.
First and foremost, he was elected exactly the way he wanted to be — in an electoral landslide. He took not only traditionally Democratic states, but once-solid Republican territory too. That allows him to claim, credibly, a broad mandate for his ideas.
“I came down here to make a prayer ... that we’ll be able to change the nation and the world,” said Hollis Gentry.
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Charles Babington contributed to this story.