Excerpted from CDFAI policy update January 2009
The Anglo-American chronicler of America and American life, Alistair Cooke, observed that a presidential performance is a trilogy of plays. The first play is the election campaign. Cooke called it ‘Promises, Promises.’ Long and exhausting, the candidate criss-crosses the country, telling each and every group, what they wanted or expected to hear.
The second play begins on election night and lasts until the inauguration. Cooke called it ‘The Honeymoon,’ that time in the life of the president-elect when, while he is powerless, he is very popular. Not a day goes by without another flattering profile of him, his family and the team that he is assembling about him. A new president always suggests the prospect of change and movement, the rebirth of the American promise, and into him Americans invest their hopes and aspirations for the future. Three out of four Americans, including a majority of Republicans, approve of how Obama has handled the transition.
This happy state of affairs will reach a crescendo shortly before noon on Tuesday, January 20th, on the West Front of the Capitol Building – “democracy’s front porch,” as President George H.W. Bush called it. With one hand on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his 1861 inaugural, Barack Hussein Obama will raise his right hand before Chief Justice John Roberts, and take the oath of office making him the 44th president of the United States.
Obama’s inaugural address is expected to be relatively short, about fifteen minutes. His speechwriter says it will reflect “this moment that we’re in, and the idea that America was founded on certain ideals that we need to take back.” Expect references to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose January 19th birthdate is now celebrated with a national holiday, and to Abraham Lincoln, whom Obama venerates. This year is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. After the afternoon parade and evening balls, the new Administration will get down to work and the third and longest play in Cooke’s presidential cycle, ‘Facts of Life,’ begins in earnest…
The curtain on what Alistair Cooke called the third play in the life of a president, the ‘Facts of Life,’ is about to be raised. Americans invest in their new president their hopes and their aspirations. In Obama the circumstances are magnified because of his compelling, extraordinary life story, the drama of the presidential campaign, the unpopularity of his predecessor and the circumstances under which he will take the oath of office – the economic crisis and the wars. Americans, and many others around the world, look to him for leadership
Obama is about to bring ‘yes we can’ into rooms accustomed to saying ‘no we can’t’.Presidents- elect, warned presidential scholar Richard Neustadt, “are almost bound to overestimate the power that will soon be theirs.” Government and the regulatory power of the state will expand. Yet to be determined is whether these institutions will be up to the job. Obama has set forth a big, daunting agenda and is moving forward on many fronts. Expectations are high. So is the risk of overload. These are the ‘facts of life’ that will feed into the reviews, especially after the first hundred days.
In the confirmation hearings, the Obama team is already getting a taste of the inevitable bumps in the road. Every bump will wear some of the shine off the mantle of the extraordinary expectations invested in them. Before the bubble of expectation begins to deflate, President Obama must give not just voice to, but the appearance of, movement and change at home. Even then ‘success’ will be incomplete and tinged, at least to the purists, by compromise. To effect the changes that he promises, Obama will need all the tools off his presidency: his team,
his bully pulpit, and the extraordinary network that he developed during the campaign. Success will depend on his relationship with the Congress.
Intervening in his domestic agenda will be the unexpected international ‘events’, that phone call at 3 AM in the morning that, in one of history’s ironies, will now be answered by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Americans and the international community will confirm or revise their assessments of the new president on how he handles them. Such is the burden of primacy borne by every American president.
My own encounters with the new president were brief: shortly before he gave his epic speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, and then, on a couple of occasions, outside the Senate office buildings, where he could smoke (a habit he is apparently still trying to shake). After making several hundred calls on Capitol Hill, I divided politicians into two camps: talkers and listeners. I reckon that 80% are talkers. Obama was a listener. I would pitch him on an issue – beef, lumber, or Devil’s Lake. He would listen politely, thank me and I would depart. I thought him ‘fit, elegant, comfortable in his skin.’ I also wrote that he appeared ‘deliberative, disciplined, and determined.’ In the months and years ahead, he will need all of those qualities.