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Obama: Promises to Keep

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/obama-promise.jpgSen. Barack Obama (WDCpix)

At last, we have reached the beginning. Sen. Barack Obama has won the presidency. Now we stand at the beginning of a new era — based on a set of promises and ideals that have raised hopes for millions at a time of darkness and rekindled the optimistic beliefs and possibilities of much of America.

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Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Obama has maybe a day to celebrate the end of what has been a caustic, difficult and, most especially, long campaign. At rallies, the Democratic nominee is fond of saying that since he announced nearly two years ago, children have been conceived, born and are walking and talking. But these children will grow up in the post-Bush era. They will know Obama as their first leader and scoff at the notion that anyone ever questioned whether an African-American could win the presidency.

But how these children remember these years is what comes next. Because while an Obama win signals a new era of politics, it is one fraught with peril because so much is expected of him. The new president is being presented with two wars, an economic system in crisis and a public that has invested a great deal of faith in perhaps the least experienced man to move into the Oval Office.

John F. Kennedy, announcing the New Frontier, defined it not as a set of promises but as a set of challenges for the American people. However, what has drawn people to Obama is precisely the promises he’s made — large and small — as he stormed past Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and then Sen. John McCain in what looks to be an historic win.

Health-care reorganization. A progressive energy policy. A retooling of the infrastructure of a broken economy. High-speed rail. Tax reform. An end to a war in Iraq. The question now is, beginning today, can he do it? Can Obama make good on this litany of promises?

This nation, as Nelson Algren once wrote of Obama’s adopted hometown, “no longer laughs easily or well, out of spiritual good health. We seem to have no way of judging either the laughing of the living or the fixed smirk of the dead.” We are no longer a country that can afford to take things lightly because everywhere we look, we can find only anguish and angst. As such, Obama’s mission is no less a task than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s: Help put real, systemic change into place while being the man whose reassurance and steady hand can lift the spirits of a nation.

“Every candidate makes promises and one shouldn’t be too cynical,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and as an adviser to Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. “The first thing he has to do is prioritize them. He’s spoken a lot about health care, and clearly that’s going to be a priority. But that’s certainly going to take time to develop. And given the current state of the economy, he’s not not going to have much to work with

“But there are things he can do quickly ,” said Hess, author of “What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President Elect.” “Stem Cell research is something he can accomplish quickly. He has support for it. And by passing it quickly, it shows he has momentum, that he can start out of the block fast.”

But there are things Obama may not be able to accomplish quickly, like health care, which — despite the meltdown of the international banking system and the 401(K) of a certain chief national politics reporter for a website that puts national news in context — has remained an integral part of Obama’s stump speech and was given heavy focus during his 30-minute infomercial.

Here is where the promises get more daunting. As with stem-cell research, Obama’s first step would be to use the existing S-Chip legislation, vetoed by President George W. Bush, but which had large bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress.

Going forward, his best ally would be Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The critically ill senator is currently at work on a comprehensive heath-care reform package, which Obama could simply stand behind, using whatever influence he has over the new Democratic majority. Even with the old Lion at Obama’s side, it will could still prove the toughest of his early fights.

“Health care is really big,” said Robert Borosage, president of the Institute for America’s Future. “That’s a bear. When you talk about ‘pitched fights,’ that’ll be a pitched fight.”

Even as he and his surrogates fight on the Hill, Obama must follow up on the pledge he made to end the war and occupation in Iraq. After all, this is what built his early momentum.

But wth his win last night, the American people have ceded the idea of “victory” in Iraq that McCain spoke about so often. It will be a matter of ending it by reaching out to shunned allies abroad, setting certain benchmarks for the Iraqi government and gaining enough support among the military elite — many of whom shared Obama’s reservations about invasion — to not repeat the chaotic pullout that marked the end the Vietnam War.

But we all know that Iraq is not what brought Obama to this moment. It’s not what helped build a new, vast coalition in both the House and the Senate that, in all likelihood, could give him the votes he needs to pass legislation in a way no Democratic president has since Lyndon B. Johnson stormed into office in 1964.

Rather it is the economy — the singular issue that pushed Obama ahead of his ill-prepared opponent, a man who was ready to run on national security and proved ill-equipped when it came to running as a candidate who could solve an economic crisis.

This is why many longtime Washington observers talk about addressing the energy problem as the surest first step of a new President Obama.

“He has an enormous opportunity with the new majority in the House and the Senate to take bold action,” said Borosage. “That sets the stage for what the first part of his administration could be. He could do a good part of his energy plans right off the bat — because you’re dealing with both the issues of the economy and energy independence going at once. Energy is easy and popular. And in a time of recession, to make that kind of investment you’re going to be creating new jobs, with corporations building windfarms, and there’s going to be no lobby against it.

“But he’s got to to very quickly turn his attention to his real economic plan — which is a lot more than a $300-billion stimulus plan,” Borosage continued. “That takes on banking regulation, mortgage relief and an expansion of supervision over the markets. It builds a different strategy, in terms of what this country’s role is in the global economy.”

Bill Carrick, the Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Edward M. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Dick Gephardt, says that the key is to start small. Begin by using the qualities that put you into office — the cool demeanor of a man with a firm understanding of the fundamentals — to simply calm the situation down. The rest will take time, mandate or no.

“The first thing ought to be is to try and calm the markets down,” Carrick said. “That is the best thing for him to do to install a sense of stability in a period of great instability. I don’t think anyone expects radical change within the first 100 days. We have an international economy with lots of structural problems that have to be dealt with. This includes our international trade system, our relationship with countries across the globe.

“These are going to be challenging times,” Carrick said. “No question about it. We’ve seen an economic meltdown in concert with serious national-security questions. You’re not walking into a good-times presidency. I mean things are really tough.

“There’s this idea of a care-taker policy,” Carrick continued, “Well, we’re in the opposite situation. We need a creative presidency.”

But the most imaginative presidency cannot succeed if it looks like Obama is willing to come up short on the great expectations he’s set over the two years of this campaign. This includes owning up to promises made to constituencies, like labor, that turned out members en masse.

“The most important thing is short-run and long-run economic change,” said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, the nation’s largest union. “That’s what our members want from this presidency. In the short run, solve the health-care crisis. Most of our members feel like they’re one illness away from economic disaster.

In the long run, have workers share in the success of their companies by passing things like the employees’ Free Choice Act. All we’ve asked for is to make this an America where you reward hard work.

“I would say,” Stern continued, “we are on the verge of deciding how Barack Obama is going to lead and what kind of country we will be. There’s two models — transactional, where you elect a president and within the established framework in place you negotiate progress. The second is the kind of potential presidency which comes along very rarely, where you recreate the rules. … I don’t look at Obama’s presidency in terms of labor wants or what the Democrats want. I believe he understands what America wants.”

Stern will be only one of the clamor of voices that will echo through the West Wing once Obama takes the oath. But he has little time to wait to start paying back the trust and goodwill with which he’s been charged.

Today he must get down to work.

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