Obama Needs Support From Congress, Country

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Come Tuesday, Barack Obama will be on the steps of the Capitol, where he will be sworn into office. That's when the real work will begin. Mr. Obama will need the support of those lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This land is also Cokie Roberts' land. She joins us every Monday morning for analysis, and she's with us once again. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: And you admit you're really singing right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: We'll sing, we'll sing right after the break. In about four minutes, you and I can sing. Right off air - off air, we should stress.

ROBERTS: Off air.

INSKEEP: Exactly. OK, so the real work starts tomorrow. President-elect Obama becomes President Obama. And I suppose we should remember amid all this celebration, this is a guy who won with 52 percent of the vote. How broad is his support?

ROBERTS: Incredibly broad, according to two big polls out over the weekend. One, ABC-Washington Post, one New York Times-CBS. His personal popularity is better than any president's since Ronald Reagan's.

Almost 80 percent of the people saying that they like him. Similarly, his political approval is way up there; two-thirds give him - you know, pass the Goldilocks test, saying that his ideology is about - just right, not too liberal, not too conservative. And in the New York Times-CBS poll, almost 80 percent say they're optimistic about Obama's presidency.

INKEEP: Well now, Cokie, does that mean if you've got millions of people - if those polls are right - millions of people who didn't vote for the guy, who now support him just a couple of months later, does that mean he's been successful in reaching out to conservatives and other kinds of voters?

ROBERTS: Yeah, I think so. I think that - look, some of this is they like him, they like the incoming first lady, she's got a 72 percent approval. You saw the crowds this weekend all coming out. But almost 90 percent say that he's willing to listen to different points of view.

And that's a change from what they've been seeing in Washington with both parties. He's been striking the right notes for these folks with the bipartisan reach-out, to Senator McCain, to conservative columnists, going to the Tomb of the Unknowns yesterday.

But look, it's also true, Steve, that people are terrified about the economy. I mean, both polls show huge numbers saying the economy is bad, close to 100 percent - in the 90s in both. And 80 percent say it's worse than it was five years ago. So these people are ready to give Obama the benefit of the doubt on just about anything at this point.

INSKEEP: Does the president-elect have a benefit now that he will not have in six months or a year? Meaning, that if people are thinking about whether they approve of him or not, they compare him with President Bush, with whom many people disagree?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. And George Bush continues to score badly in these polls: 33 percent approval in the ABC, 22 in the New York Times. He never got into a positive approval ratings in this second term - after having the highest in history after September 11th.

Also, people are saying his place in history will be poor. Fifty-eight percent in the ABC poll believe he will be rated as an average or poor president. And he's the only recent president to be that high. Carter was about 46 percent. Compare it with George Bush's father, at 12 percent saying that. So that definitely makes Obama's task easier.

INSKEEP: Although, let me ask about something else. Because, of course, just four years ago, President Bush was taking office for a second term. His party had control of Congress. He had a huge agenda he wanted to push through, and almost none of it got done. Is it likely that Barack Obama is in position to do better?

ROBERTS: Yes. Look, again, as I say, you've got people ready to basically let him do just about anything. And these polls say that they agree with him on all kinds of stuff in terms of the economic stimulus, but essentially, you know, just do something. And Republicans might be pushing back against that stimulus package, but they have to be careful because Obama really does have the political capital.

More than 60 percent of the people say they're confident in him, compared to only 43 percent confident with the Democrats in Congress, only 29 percent with the Republicans in Congress. And the Republican identification, only 23 percent of the people are calling themselves Republican. That's one of the lowest in history. So they have to be very careful not to be seen as obstructionists. Especially after tomorrow, Steve, when Obama's likely to even get more approval.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts. And of course, NPR News will be bringing you live coverage of tomorrow's presidential inauguration. You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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In Obama, Americans See Promise Of A New Start

Love it or loathe it, the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States represents a tectonic shift in the nation's history. As the Age of Obama dawns, we're not exactly sure where we are headed. But there is a sense that we are going in new and uncharted directions.

And from the looks of the crises — financial, environmental, global terrorism — all around, we're going to go through radical cultural changes regardless of who is in control.

It is, of course, Obama. And expectations are high.

Lifelong Republican and former Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa said in a speech, "The change Barack Obama is advocating ... is a clarion call for renewal."

"This is a season of hope," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA).

The election of Obama, says writer Anna Quindlen, "means that for at least one incandescent moment, America has lived up to its promise — its promise to value people based on their character and not their color; its promise to be wider and greater than its prejudices; its promise to truly welcome immigrants and to celebrate difference."

Say what you will about other presidents of recent years, but they did not inspire such soaring expectations.

People expect to be living in a different kind of country with Obama in the White House. The world anticipates a revised version of America. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 79 percent of those surveyed are optimistic about the coming years with Obama as president.

There will be ample time for scrutiny, for political suspicion. Already, the fault-finding has begun, and surely it will intensify in the months and years to come. But for one brief midwinter's moment, let's take a breath and contemplate the significance of this historical hinge, this turning point, this monumental event in a nation's lifespan.

The Color Of Change

Though Obama may preach of a post-racial America, his election is inarguably — and especially — significant to people of color in this country and throughout the world. His rival John McCain alluded to the monumental breakthrough in his election-night concession speech.

"A century ago," McCain said, "President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States."

The swearing-in of the first black president of the United States, says historian and author Douglas Brinkley, "is the culmination of the freedom struggle." It's a national marathon of incremental steps that began with the first slavery revolt, continued through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement.

"There is no way we can overdramatize what is happening," Brinkley says. "When he takes the oath of office, there will be a healing. If slavery is our original curse and racism is our national disease, Obama is a cultural healing agent."

Such opportunities for sweeping nationwide expiation, Brinkley says, are rare.

The Global Meaning

For Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, the election of Obama is a global symbol. "As an immigrant and a child of immigrants and the mother of two young girls born in the United States," she says, Obama's election "reinforces, more than I ever thought possible, the old cliche of the American dream — that everything is possible."

She believes it has "put a great deal of optimism within my daughters' reach. They will never know a world where someone was kept from being president of the United States because he had the same skin color as them."

In a broader context, Danticat adds, "I think the election of Barack Obama ... will be a great example to many countries with large populations of immigrants and people of color that, if we're allowed to contribute, we can offer our best, and our children can contribute on the highest possible levels. Finally, after eight years of a type of darkness, we will be setting the right example for the rest of the world in terms of opportunity and inclusion and, yes, hope."

The victory on Election Day sliced through racial and generational lines. For decades, public discourse in America has been supercharged by the young-old divide and other dichotomies: mainstream versus counterculture; hawks versus doves; pro-Reaganites versus anti-Reaganites. "Since 1968," Brinkley says, that friction "has been the governing energy of the body politic. It was a split-screen food fight."

Now, Brinkley says, Obama presents a new paradigm for America and beyond. "Operating from that healing center is the new governing ethic," he says. He sees Obama's closing of Guantanamo as a symbolic announcement that the United States is changing course — the country will not engage in torture anymore.

On A Personal Note

The election of Obama is noteworthy. So is the man himself. From all appearances, he is devoted to his family. He is self-deprecating, yet confident. He has good manners. He wants to put a basketball court in the White House. He likes dogs.

Embodying the best of American political impulses, Brinkley says, Obama possesses "the calmness of Abraham Lincoln, the oratory of Martin Luther King Jr., and the humor and grace of John F. Kennedy."

He is a masterful politician. He may have changed — for better or worse — the way presidential candidates raise money. He was connected to a vast constituency via the Internet. He took in record-setting amounts of donations online. This tsunami of support can be seen as a way to bring people together to work for a common cause. He is a deft public speaker, and he has written two autobiographies.

"My understanding," says writer Jane Smiley, "is that Obama writes much of his own material. To me, this means that he will be less likely to lie about his reasons, his feelings and his intentions. I think when a president is himself inarticulate, and then is given speeches by people with strong opinions of their own, the president is more likely to say, 'Well, that looks good,' or, 'That seems right,' but not to have actually worked through or thought about those issues."

Through America's nearly 233 years, there have been other turning-point presidents and occasions to rise to. But, for some reason, an unprecedented number of people are expected in Washington for this inauguration. Perhaps it's that Obama — because of his story, or his message, or his hopefulness — offers so many people so many ways to connect with him. There is a sense of participating in a wave of change, a transformative experience.

Someone has described it as "Woodstock with marching bands."

The inauguration of Barack Obama is not the end of racial divisions or generational tensions or global hostility. But it is seen by many as an opportunity for a new beginning. If the U.S. can decisively elect an African-American president, anything is possible. And for one brief midwinter's moment, that's what Jan. 20, 2009, represents to so many people: not just change, but the possibility of more changes — and more changes for the better.

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