Obama Must Manage Great Expectations

President-elect Barack Obama has a huge victory to savor. He won't have much time to celebrate, though, because he's already planning his new government. One of the biggest challenges will be handling the sky-high expectations that his campaign of hope and change has generated.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President-elect Barack Obama won't have much time to savor victory. In a little over two months, he takes over two wars, a staggering economy, and a soaring federal budget deficit. He's already planning his new government. And the many problems he faces may include this: handling the high expectations generated by his campaign of hope and change. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: On Tuesday night at his victory party, Barack Obama said that his election was the answer to anyone who still doubted that America was a place where all things are possible.

(Soundbite of Barack Obama's acceptance speech, Chicago, Illinois)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

LIASSON: President-elect Obama's supporters expect a lot to change now that he will be in the White House. Here's a sampling from just one recent Obama rally.

Unidentified Woman: He will end the war.

Unidentified Man: You'll see our image in the world standings improve.

Unidentified Man #2: I expect that my tuition's going to go down.

Unidentified Man #2: I know he's going to make our schools better.

Unidentified Woman #3: We will get the tax cut for the middle class.

Unidentified Man #3: My personal health care issues will be greatly improved. My ability to make a living in this country will be greatly improved.

Unidentified Woman #3: And I expect him to work some magic.

LIASSON: Obama will need all the magic he can muster to solve the huge problems he's inheriting. On the campaign trail, he made it sound easy. The only sacrifice he asked people to make was turning off the lights and checking the pressure in their tires. Norman Ornstein, a scholar of Congress and the presidency at the American Enterprise Institute, says high expectations are a burden for Obama.

Dr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): It's a burden in a whole host of ways. We still have a dysfunctional government. One election doesn't change that. One dramatically charismatic, competent figure doesn't change that. A substantial number of new Democrats in the House and Senate doesn't change that.

LIASSON: Ornstein says Obama will have to manage some particularly high expectations from his own Democratic Party with their newly expanded majorities in the House and Senate.

Dr. ORNSTEIN: If the expectations are high generally, they're highest on the left. You got a group of people who think, first of all, that it's their victory, who believe that Obama is one of them, and that he has a mandate now so that he can do just what Franklin Roosevelt did in the New Deal.

LIASSON: That's what Michael Gerson , a former speechwriter for President Bush, worries about. Gerson says nothing Obama said during the campaign indicates when or if he might push back against the Democratic leadership in Congress.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Op-ed Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Bill Clinton, when he ran for president, challenged the consensus of his own party as a new Democrat. Barack Obama has not needed to do that in this election. That to me is a problem because that will empower the Democratic leadership of Congress to go in directions that Barack Obama may not be happy about. He doesn't have an alternative vision to the vision - the liberal vision of the Democratic leadership.

LIASSON: Then there's the clash of campaign promises with dollars and cents reality. Obama says he'll pay for his spending plans in part by raising taxes on the wealthy, but raising taxes is hard to do in a recession. He says he wants a big new alternative energy plan, new health care benefits, and more money for education. But he's also facing a deficit that could very soon reach $1 trillion. And then there's the economy, which is deteriorating by the week. Norm Ornstein.

Dr. ORNSTEIN: He would to like to have as a signature in his first two years a transformation of the health care system. We know he has to deal with the financial situation. He has to get the country moving again, dealing with what's probably a global recession. For both of those, you need broad bipartisan consensus, and it's not been there.

LIASSON: Obama ran as someone who could bridge partisan divisions. That claim will now be put to the test. On foreign policy, the challenges are just as great, and the road map Obama has laid down is sketchier. His running mate made it clear what he expected in the first six months for a young president just four years out of the Illinois state Legislature. "Mark my words," Joe Biden told a group of Democratic donors. "Mark my words."

Vice President-elect JOE BIDEN: Watch, we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.

LIASSON: Even without a generated crisis to test his mettle, Obama will inherit a plateful of intractable foreign policy problems.

Mr. BOB KAGAN (Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): The nice thing about a campaign is you can always talk in pretty black-and-white terms about what you'd like to do and what you think. And then, of course, the world's a very messy place.

LIASSON: That's foreign policy scholar Bob Kagan who supported John McCain during the campaign.

Mr. KAGAN: I would imagine there are going to be gaps on any number of issues between campaign rhetoric and policy.

LIASSON: There's the war in Iraq, which might be harder to end as fast as Obama would like, and Afghanistan, which Obama has called the true frontline in the war on terror and where he's promised to put in more U.S. troops to defeat the Taliban and get Osama bin Laden. Bob Kagan.

Mr. KAGAN: Anyone who knows the Pakistan issue at all well will tell you that there are no easy solutions. It's not as if the Bush administration wasn't trying to get Osama bin Laden. It's not just that they're a bunch of idiots. It's not an easy thing to do. And I really think that the key officials in an Obama administration are going to have to roll up their sleeves, take a fresh look at these issues. And I would say it's very unclear where they're going to come out because there are no easy answers.

LIASSON: And there are no easy answers to a resurgent Russia, a nuclear-armed North Korea, or, says former Clinton administration official Michael O'Hanlon, perhaps the most pressing problem of all, Iran.

Dr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): The Iranians still probably can build a nuclear bomb if they want. We don't have enough leverage to stop them or even make them pay a huge price for failing to do so.

LIASSON: Obama has said he would not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. He's never taken the option of using military force off the table, but he's also stated a preference for the soft power of diplomacy without explaining how he would create the leverage to stop Iran. Still, O'Hanlon says, despite all these problems, Obama will have one big advantage, the impact that his election will have around the world.

Dr. O'HANLON: I think his supporters are right when they talk about the improvement to our image that will occur on January 21, if not this week. Obama is probably going to have the most important boost that he achieves in American popularity simply by taking the oath of office. So I would acknowledge that. But then we have to figure out how to get something out of that in terms of serving our interests around the world.

LIASSON: Obama will certainly have a honeymoon. It's just not clear how long it will last at home or abroad. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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