What Obama Faces In addition to the Middle East and the U.S. engagement in two wars, the Obama administration will inherit a failing economy and a nation racked by uncertainty.
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What Obama Faces

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What Obama Faces

What Obama Faces

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SIMON SCOTT, host:

In addition to Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, U.S. engagement oversees, the Obama administration is going to inherit a failing economy, and a nation racked by uncertainty. We're joined now to help us wrangle all - some of these challenges - NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Juan, thanks for being with us.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT: And Robin Wright, whose books include "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East," thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ROBIN WRIGHT (Journalist; Author, "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East"): Nice to be with you.

SIMON: Well, let me turn to you. Everybody in Congress seems to be urgently paying attention to the task at hand - the economy. Is this kind of amity and agreement and a sense of urgency unusual? And how is it going to move events?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's given a sense of President-elect Barack Obama having a very compressed time period, and the need to demonstrate that he's in command very quickly. So he's trying to get out of the gate early. That's why we had all these confirmation hearings going this week. The hope was that he would set a record, in fact, in terms of the number of Cabinet officials who have been confirmed before he took office.

And just yesterday, he's out there on - it's almost like a campaign-style presentation in Bedford Heights, Ohio, at a big bolts plant, saying, you know what, we need to put more people to work. He wants green jobs, arguing for his stimulus package, that nearly trillion-dollar package. And, of course, last week, he just got the second half of the bailout money that had been made available to President Bush. So this is all part of his effort to gear up quickly, to demonstrate that as these first 100 days come in, he's a guy who's in control from day one.

SIMON: And a quick question: Do Republicans at the same time have a need to appear cooperative?

WILLIAMS: Well, they can't appear as obstructionist. And so far he has made the case to them, he has reached out to them - dinner with the journalists, private meetings with the people on the Hill. So he has made a real show of being willing to work with them, and put them in the position of having to work with him and having to show good faith.

SIMON: Robin Wright, let me turn to you. Is the Israeli offensive in Gaza over just in time for the inauguration, and what does this do to the president's agenda?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I think that it comes at a very hopeful time because this is - the president doesn't want to have to take on a war - ongoing war. After all, he was elected at a time that the Israelis and the Palestinians were still in the midst of the most direct peace talks they'd ever held in six decades of the conflict. This, at least, offers an opportunity for the new secretary of state to engage in some way that may look at the future rather than at the messy past.

SIMON: In addition to all of the datelines we've just mentioned, is there a foreign policy situation that's maybe in the tall grass, that President Obama might confront?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I think there are five looming challenges in the first year. You have an increasingly assertive and self-confident Russia. There are deep differences over missile defense, NATO expansion more in Georgia. You have rising China, which is important not just because it's a major power in Asia, but because it holds today an enormous share of our debt. Then you have the issue of North Korea and the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, their last days both thought they had a deal and neither did. And so the Obama administration inherits that mess again.

Then you have the looming challenges of failed states like Somalia, and imploding democracies like Venezuela, which as we saw with Afghanistan, can look distant or something you can handle tomorrow or long term, but can suddenly land in your lap in very volatile ways. And then there's the big issue of the 2025 CIA analysis that looked at where the United States will stand in just over 15 years. And it had some very dire warnings about the United States increasingly losing power. It will not be the lone superpower at that juncture. It will face issues of climate challenge that have to do not only with temperatures rising, but also with migration and conflict - challenges that we don't yet see. And then there's the big challenges - the five urgent challenges he has to face in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Arab-Israeli, and the daunting challenge of Iran.

SIMON: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Let me take a few seconds to ask you a question about the daunting challenges of domestic policy because here's a president who walks in on an almost unprecedented financial crisis and yet until then, he had a big domestic agenda.

WILLIAMS: He still does because I would say that if you looked at it in the terms that Robin was just talking about, you would start listing things like green, making sure that our economy has more innovative and green attitudes about, even as he creates those jobs; talk about health care as a real priority, trying to reform a health-care system. He says he even wants to do something about Social Security. And then, of course, education looms very large in his agenda, especially dealing with preschool children.

SIMON: OK, Juan Williams, Robin Wright, thanks so much.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you.

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