Can Obama Govern?

After the party comes the hangover, and so it will be after Obama’s historic election victory as well.

What now, Barack Obama? You got your historic victory. For the first time in the 143 years since the end of slavery, a black man will move into the White House. A new generation takes over the reins, led by a 47-year-old intellectual who attracts people like a rock star. A new style has come into vogue: cool, optimistic, free of cynicism and scare tactics. After all the negativity ascribed to them, young people are happy to finally have a political idol. Other segments of society, at least for the time being, no longer feel excluded: blacks, Hispanics, the poor, even gays now have visibility. The coalition put together by the son of a Kenyan father and a flower child mother from Kansas transcends all strata up to and including wealthy white people.

It’s no mean feat that the superb orator successfully pulled off in 21 months of innovative campaigning. The hope of which he constantly speaks is more than just a campaign slogan; it kindled a spark that caught on even among people outside America. But what now, Barack Obama? There won’t be much time to savor the victory because the turning point marked by Obama’s triumph is already overshadowed by a more sinister epoch: America is caught in a deep crisis. In a country threatened by recession, debt and high unemployment, giving out rhetorical happy pills won’t be good enough.

Like a gigantic millstone, the legacy left by the departing President is dragging the victor’s ambitious program down to the hardpan of reality. Obama has promised health insurance coverage to every one of the 47 million Americans currently making do without it. He wants to invest $150 billion in environmental technologies and another $60 billion in the nation’s infrastructure. He promised to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans and to raise taxes for the wealthy, but the bottom line is the government would come up short by hundreds of billions. How is this all possible when budgets will have to be cut due to a deficit now at the $500 billion mark?

Obama is faced with a choice: either he breaks his campaign promises or he adds to the growing mountain of debt. In his victory speech, a “best-of” selection from former oratorical highlights, the 44th President put out some interesting overtones. Obama spoke of a new spirit of sacrifice, of the long, steep road that lay before the nation. Leon Panetta, adviser to Obama’s transition team, said in the New York Times that painful decisions would have to be made at the beginning of Obama’s administration. It looks like he will have to prepare his supporters for a few unpleasant footnotes to his platform.

Disagreements within his own party also loom. Broad segments of the Democratic majority will be pushing for him to live up to his campaign promises and begin scattering money to the public with both hands. In his few months as a Senator, Obama was always faithful to the party line. Now he will have to show he has a spine.

Whoever generates hope in so many is bound to disappoint some. That could prove to have a boomerang effect within the Internet community he so successfully won over. If his supporters in cyberspace begin to feel frustrated, their anger could snowball into an avalanche of e-mails.

The store of confidence and enthusiasm he has accumulated during the campaign will rapidly melt away if he can’t get around the unpopular decisions he will have to make. That’s why it would behoove him to reach out to the Republicans who have thus far shown themselves to be good losers.

Obama’s task is to unite the nation and the election showed that he is capable of doing that. But some before him also wanted to be inclusive and failed. Jimmy Carter, for example. How rapidly the Democrats can fritter away a majority in Congress was also demonstrated in Bill Clinton’s first term.

Obama has three qualities necessary to be a great President: charisma, a cool head, and an era nearly as challenging as that which faced Roosevelt when he entered office in 1932. No one really knows yet whether Obama has what it takes to lead the nation. But there still is hope.

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