Not So Great Expectations

It’s been amusing but not necessarily edifying, to watch Barack Obama’s foes and friends attempt to define his presidency before he has even been sworn in.

Right-wing commentators reassure themselves that his victory somehow confirms that the U.S. remains a “center-right nation.” Their counterparts on the left debate whether he should model himself more on Franklin Roosevelt than on Lincolnor vice versa.

Some have even already predicted that he will be only a one-term president.

It’s time for all the prognosticators to shut up, and let the man do his job.
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He’s already defining himself. And he is already taking charge.

The economic team he is putting in place is a good example.

As he demonstrated during his campaign, Obama is a one-of-a-kind political leader confronting a unique political challenge. Trying to fit him into established paradigms obscures our understanding of the task that confronts him. We need to see both the man and the situation anew, guided by history but not shackled by it.

This is not our daddy’s mess or our grand-daddy’s mess. It’s ours.

The truth is that Obama is going to have to feel his way through the mess woven by George W. Bush’s inept regime. Neither the New Deal nor supply-side economics offers a roadmap.

The best Obama can do is ignore ideology and try various approaches until he finds ones that work. He seems to know that. That’s why he stands a good chance of confounding critics who are already trying to put him in a box.

He is surrounding himself with aides who bristle with what David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, calls practical creativity. As Brooks writes, they are “people who can give the president a list of concrete steps he can do day by day to advance American interests.”

That’s just what’s needed nowofficials who want to get the job done, not win a partisan debate. Treasury Secretary choice Timothy F. Geithner, senior White House economics adviser designee Lawrence H. Summers and budget director pick Peter R. Orszag are that kind of people.

So let’s all get a grip and think about what we can reasonably expectand demandfrom an Obama administration. It’s not, at this point, so much a list of specific policies, as it is a new kind of leadershipstarting with a change in tone.

Every new president promises to inaugurate a new era of bipartisan compromise, and Obama promised to appoint Republicans to his cabinet, and may even retain Bush’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates.

But more important, it means doing away with the high-handed attitude of a presidency that believed it was above the law, wrapped itself in the flag while undermining the nation’s most treasured values and lied us into an unnecessary war that has cost thousands of lives, billions of dollars and the respect of much of the world.

As the first president of the post-Baby Boom generation, Obama’s victory can be read as a mandate for finally turning the page on the tired culture wars that have warped our politics since the 1960s.

Barring an unforeseen foreign emergency, Obama’s foremost priority will certainly be restoring the health of the economy. He is already moving toward a huge stimulus program, equal or bigger in size to the $700 billion bailout of the credit markets. His goal is to create 2.5 million new jobs over the next two years, by putting people to work repairing the nation’s roads, highways and bridges as well building new green technology and alternative-energy sources. He may push ahead with revolutionary health-care reform and tax relief for middle-class families. He may accelerate the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq.

These are big proposals. But the specifics are less important than the attitude of Obama’s administration. The deepest flaw of Bush’s regime was its cocksure certainty, its arrogant unwillingness to change course in the face of contrary evidence, its propensity to impose moralistic political considerations upon scientific issues such as stem-cell research and global warming.

Undoing such a disastrous legacy will require candor, self-confidence and a degree of humility from the new presidentand patience from his supporters.

Obama has promised us that kind of leadership. He is not waiting for Bush to leave to start making good on the pledge.

It will be easier for him to deliver if we all grow up a bit, stop prejudging and wait to see what he actually does.

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