Perhaps the most annoying aspect of President-elect Obama’s campaign
was the vagueness of his promise of “change,” which turned out to have
little content once you got past the soaring rhetoric, leaving people
of all persuasions to use him as a mirror to their own aspirations and
That very vagueness, however, may serve him well as he prepares to
take up the reins of governance — although it could easily complicate
his task as well.
President-elect Obama will assume office with two wars under way and
the country in the midst of a financial crisis brought on by private
greed spurred on by easy money from the Federal Reserve and government
policies encouraging lenders to hand out loans to people who could not
afford to repay them once the housing bubble burst. He will have a more
Democratic Congress to deal with, one with a pent-up demand for more
spending and regulation.
The breadth of his victory gives him something of a mandate, but a
mandate for what? The president-elect would do well to consider that
many of his supporters were not so much endorsing expansive new
government programs as expressing disgust at the sheer incompetence of
a Bush administration that topped years of spending increases and an
ill-advised war with a trillion-dollar bailout program for the
financial industry that it still hasn’t figured out how to deploy.
Those years of extravagance — some experts project a trillion-dollar
deficit next year — will constrain the new president’s ability to
institute ambitious new programs. Ending the Iraq war could easily be
more complicated than one might hope. One wonders whether redoubling
military efforts in Afghanistan and perhaps in Pakistan, where Sen.
Obama has vowed to take it to al-Qaida, is wise or even possible. And
new administrations are always met with unexpected surprises (see 9/11)
that can change plans drastically.
President-elect Obama ran a sure-footed campaign that calmly
overcame more experienced and better-known adversaries, which speaks
well of his organizational abilities. He has an experienced transition
team that has been making plans for several months. But the federal
government is a far more unruly beast than a campaign organization, and
while Obama’s instincts may be sound, his executive experience is still
President Obama, then, would do well to start with a thoughtful
agenda, not a hurricane of proposed transformation. His very election
is already historic, suggesting a reflective moment.
Reining in executive-branch excesses, rescinding certain executive
orders and establishing a government that actually functions rather
than randomly throwing money at real and imagined problems would be
change enough to satisfy most Americans.