This nation faces daunting challenges both at home and abroad. In electing Sen. Barack Obama as president, the American people have turned to a man who, even his opponents readily acknowledge, possesses both a first-class intelligence and a first-class temperament. He will need both.
“The typhoon of campaign oratory is over—now may the still small voice of reason prevail,” wrote the editors of this magazine on the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. “So constantly does the pressure of all social and political problems bear down upon [the president], that no man, no matter how strong in fortitude, can be expected to carry such a load unless he is aided by the good will and the cooperation of all Americans who are loyal enough to the spirit of the republic to place national considerations above partisan interests.”
If his somewhat somber victory speech on election night was any indication, that pressure is already being felt by the youthful yet remarkably poised president-elect. At his first press conference, he reminded the nation that there is little time to waste. “I do not underestimate the enormity [sic] of the task that lies ahead,” Obama said. “Some of the choices that we make are going to be difficult. And I have said before and I will repeat again: It is not going to be quick and it is not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in.”
With significant Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, a vigorous debate is under way about what problems Obama should tackle first and how bold his initiatives should be. Some argue that the window of opportunity for enacting progressive legislation on things such as health-care reform, energy policy, and taxation will be narrow, and the president needs to push his agenda through Congress immediately. Other Obama supporters caution that the election was much more a rejection of President George W. Bush and the Republicans than a mandate for expanding the role of government. Obama won by persuading self-described “moderates” that he was worth taking a chance on. More than anything else, those voters are looking for competence and stability in the presidency, and Obama will need to gain their trust before he can turn the country in a new direction.
If the way Obama conducted himself during his campaign is any indication, the new president will move forcefully but deliberately. His first priority is to end the credit crisis and get the economy growing again. That will require another, larger stimulus package, as well as federal aid for state and local governments and the extension of unemployment benefits. Unemployment has hit a fourteen-year high. Given the paralysis in the banking system, deficit spending on an unprecedented scale may be needed to jump-start the economy. That should give the new administration a rare opportunity to “spread the wealth around” through tax credits for those in the lower-income brackets and public-works projects on schools and the nation’s long-neglected infrastructure.
Obama launched his candidacy, of course, as an opponent of the war in Iraq, and as an advocate for a greater focus on Afghanistan. Although he has favored a timeline for the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq, he has been careful to say that the withdrawal will be responsive to conditions on the ground. No one should think that this task will be accomplished quickly or painlessly, but in the end the Iraqis will have to take responsibility for their own country. Equally complicated is the situation in Afghanistan, and it is far from clear that intensifying the U.S. military presence there is the best way to combat Al Qaeda or to support the Afghan and Pakistani governments. Once again, a cautious and deliberate approach offers the best chance for success.
Much could be said about the support Obama received from Catholic voters, and what it says about the effectiveness of the Catholic bishops’ teaching regarding the politics of abortion. For now, however, we hope Obama was sincere when he said he will take steps to reduce the number of abortions.
Much has been written on—and many tears of joy shed over—the ascendancy of an African American to the presidency of a nation long bitterly divided by race. We remain divided, by race and a host of other misunderstandings and injustices, but Barack Obama’s eloquent faith in this nation has reminded us once again that a house divided against itself cannot stand.