Barack Obama’s senior advisers have drawn up plans to lower expectations for his presidency if he wins next week’s election, amid concerns that many of his euphoric supporters are harbouring unrealistic hopes of what he can achieve.
The sudden financial crisis and the prospect of a deep and painful recession have increased the urgency inside the Obama team to bring people down to earth, after a campaign in which his soaring rhetoric and promises of “hope” and “change” are now confronted with the reality of a stricken economy.
One senior adviser told The Times that the first few weeks of the transition, immediately after the election, were critical, “so there’s not a vast mood swing from exhilaration and euphoria to despair”.
The aide said that Mr Obama himself was the first to realise that expectations risked being inflated.
In an interview with a Colorado radio station, Mr Obama appeared to be engaged already in expectation lowering. Asked about his goals for the first hundred days, he said he would need more time to tackle such big and costly issues as health care reform, global warming and Iraq. “The first hundred days is going to be important, but it’s probably going to be the first thousand days that makes the difference,” he said. He has also been reminding crowds in recent days how “hard” it will be to achieve his goals, and that it will take time.
“I won’t stand here and pretend that any of this will be easy—especially now,” Mr Obama told a rally in Sarasota, Florida, yesterday, citing “the cost of this economic crisis, and the cost of the war in Iraq”. Mr Obama’s transition team is headed by John Podesta, a Washington veteran and a former chief-of-staff to Bill Clinton. He has spent months overseeing a virtual Democratic government-in-exile to plan a smooth transition should Mr Obama emerge victorious next week. The plans are so far advanced that an Obama Cabinet has been largely decided upon, with the expectation that most of his senior appointments could be announced shortly after election day.
Yet Mr Obama and his aides are under no illusions about the size of the challenges the Democrat will inherit if he enters the Oval Office. Tom Daschle, the party’s former leader in the US Senate and a strong contender for the post of White House chief-of-staff in an Obama administration, said last month that the winner next week would have only a 50 per cent chance of winning a second term in 2012.
Not only will the next president take office with the country sliding into a potentially long recession—and mired in debt—but the challenges abroad are immense. There is an unfinished war in Iraq, a worsening situation in Afghanistan and an unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan to contend with. Iran appears intent on acquiring the bomb and there remains the ever-present threat from al-Qaeda and Islamic extremists.
If he wins, Mr Obama will inherit a Democratic-controlled Congress, and might even have the benefit of a 60-seat filibuster-proof “supermajority” in the Senate. Such a scenario would allow him to push through legislation largely unfettered by Republican opposition. Yet it also means that should the country still be mired in recession in three years’ time, voters—who have short memories—will probably blame him and the Democrats on Capitol Hill. Those stakes have led Mr Obama to conclude that while expectations need to be tempered, big things need to be achieved very early in his first term, when he will still have the political capital to achieve some of his most ambitious legislative goals.
Having promised “real” change, the pressure will be on him to deliver. In the Colorado interview, Mr Obama added: “The next president has got to come quickly out of the box.”
The early priorities being lined up if he takes power are a mixture of symbolism and substance. He plans to make a major address in a big Muslim country early in his first term. Having pledged on the campaign trail to close Guantanamo Bay, he is also determined to make early moves to rid America of the controversial prison. Yet what to do with the remaining inmates looms as an intractable problem, as many of their home governments refuse to allow them to return.
Mr Obama’s first legislative goals will be to follow through on his pledge to cut taxes for the middle class and raise them for the wealthiest Americans, and to push through a hugely expensive Bill to provide near-universal health insurance.