In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that will outline the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.
TO: Barack Obama, President-Elect of the United States
FROM: NPR News
RE: Challenges in Office
Greetings, Mr. President-elect and congratulations on your decisive victory on Nov. 4. Your campaign will be studied for years for its strategy and discipline. You have shown great skill in rallying large crowds and uniting sometimes fractious elements of your party behind your candidacy. You have won the votes of a clear, if modest, majority of the electorate. Your share of the Electoral College is better than two-thirds. You have won the great prize so many coveted and fought for during the 22-monthlong public phase of this campaign — not to mention for years before. And you have disproved the notion that only a white person could win the White House.
You may have earned the right to bask in this success and take some time off to relax. Unfortunately, this will not be possible. As you know, you and your party were borne to victory on a tide of bad news about the economy and about other aspects of our nation's present and our future.
We feel less secure economically in our country, less comfortable with our culture and less certain of our standing in the world than we have in many years. More than four out of five of us think the country is off on the wrong track. Americans have not been so downbeat about our situation since pollsters started asking this question more than a half-century ago.
Why do people feel this way? Bad as the economic news has been, it is not the only source of discouragement. Our national anxiety also stems from wars that continue in Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight. Our troops have been engaged in these conflicts longer than they were in World War II. We are also concerned about our health care system. The quality may be world class, but the distribution of the best care is fraught with inequities and the cost is beyond the means of many. Energy costs have eased in recent months, but within this calendar year the price of oil was a greater burden than ever on our economy and our lifestyle.
Perhaps these are the most immediate worries that plague the voters who elected you. But the electorate has a still longer list of challenges in the longer term, some of them quite profound and each important in its own way.
Here at NPR, we have talked about all of these challenges in varying measure over the course of this campaign year. Now, as you and the new Congress prepare to take office, we wanted to return to each issue in turn and provide a more systematic catalog. So in the weeks ahead, as the transition goes forward, we will air a series of stories addressing these issues.
Here is a representative list of what we will offer, for you and our listeners. And there'll be more where these came from.
A lack of oversight, transparency and accountability in financial markets has brought on the worst crisis in decades. What needs to change for a viable 21st century financial regulatory system to emerge? NPR's John Ydstie has been following the national economy through three decades when free market philosophy was ascendant.
Congress has approved a $25 billion bailout for America's troubled automakers. But should the new president be prepared to invest even more in helping to boost a new auto industry tailor-made for the 21st century? NPR's John McChesney takes a look at the manufacturing problem from a high-tech perspective.
Nearly the entire George W. Bush presidency has been defined by a focus on homeland security following the Sept. 11 attacks. The new president will have to decide what level of peril the country is in, and whether to keep or change the measures of the Bush administration. NPR's Pam Fessler has been following homeland security since the department was created in 2002.
Gas prices may have dipped, but long-term they remain a hot-button issue for the next president. "Energy independence," off-shore drilling, home heating costs and how to encourage efficiency and renewable energy are some of the things the new president will have to wrestle with in the midst of an economic crisis that will make it hard to shift away from fossil fuels — our cheapest source of power. NPR's Chris Joyce has been exploring new sources of energy since the earlier outbreak of energy consciousness in the 1970s.
Right after economic worries and war, health care has the attention of the public. Availability and cost of care are concerns for all, but 46 million Americans have no insurance at all — and millions of those who do are one serious illness away from financial catastrophe. Meanwhile, the spiraling costs of Medicare and Medicaid are threatening to swamp the federal budget. NPR's Julie Rovner has been charting the course of this issue since well before the 1994 health care reform came together and fell apart in Congress.
The United States lost its leadership in the international talks on global warming during the Bush administration. The new president will face a difficult deadline working to negotiate a follow-up to the Kyoto climate treaty. The United Nations has agreed to a deadline for negotiating a new pact by the end of next year and many difficult issues remain unresolved. NPR's Richard Harris has been on the climate change beat since before the second Bush presidency.
The Bush administration spent two terms working hard to expand the power of the chief executive at the expense of the other two branches of government. The new president will have to decide what approach he'll take to constitutional checks and balances. NPR's Nina Totenberg casts a judicious eye on the separation of powers.
The Justice Department is emerging from what many have called its most tumultuous period in decades. A new attorney general will have to restore the Department's credibility and work to counter perceptions that law enforcement decisions have become politicized. NPR's Ari Shapiro witnessed the rise and fall of Alberto Gonzales and the struggle of Michael Mukasey.
Under the Bush administration, there's been a "quiet revolution" in the degree to which operations of the federal government have been turned over to private entities. Yet in all this there's been little attempt to measure how it's working, or how much it costs. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling takes the measure of privatization.
Efforts to overhaul the immigration laws have dropped off the radar, but the tension continues between people who believe immigrants hurt the job prospects of Americans and those who believe immigrants support the U.S. economy. And some public officials believe this is the moment for compromise on new immigration policies. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has kept her eye on a situation the presidential campaign ignored almost completely.
Is America ready for the total transfer to digital TV? Is there a strategy to reach national broadband access? Is the government prepared to lead the way and make decisions that move billions of dollars? There will soon be a vacancy for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and guess who gets to fill it? NPR's Joel Rose provides a tour of the potential pitfalls.
The United States is set to retire its aging fleet of space shuttles in 2010. NASA is currently on track to build rockets that could return astronauts to the moon, but they won't be ready until 2014 or later. The next president could save money by delaying development of that next generation rocket, but that would mean an even longer human spaceflight "gap" with no American space vehicle. But can we afford space when we can't afford better schools or health insurance for all? NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce notes how the space challenge has changed since John F. Kennedy took office in 1961.
Democrats won the presidency and other offices with strong support from labor unions. And they are expected to be much more supportive of labor than President Bush. Can a new president deliver for labor in a way that doesn't harm companies being battered by a severe economic downturn? NPR's Frank Langfitt specializes in the role of labor in the new economy — and the new politics.