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Mission Impossible?

Few Presidents have faced the daunting challenges confronting Barack Obama when he took Office.
A first-term report card, and a look ahead

By David E. Sanger in Washington, D.C.


If you think your freshman year was tough, consider what President Obama has gone through during his first eight months in the White House.

A dizzying array of crises fell upon the President in his first months: from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and the collapse of two of America's Big Three carmakers at home, to a nuclear challenge from North Korea, the violent aftermath of a disputed election in Iran, and an effort to begin pulling the U.S. out of Iraq while immersing it more deeply than ever in Afghanistan.

As if all that isn't enough, Obama has vowed to get serious about addressing climate change and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, not to mention reinventing health care so that virtually all Americans are covered by insurance, and overhauling an immigration system that his predecessor tried, and failed, to fix. Not only are these enormous goals, many of them are extraordinarily expensive—at a time when the U.S. is already deep in debt.

"I think one of the cautions that has to be given to the President," former Secretary of State Colin Powell told CNN, "is that you can't have so many things on the table that you can't absorb it all."

Trying to dispel the idea that he has bitten off too much (which even some of his Democratic allies believe), Obama said in June, "I have to repeat and revive an old saying we had from the campaign: 'Yes, we can.' "

'Undoing The Damage'

But what sounds so neat on the campaign trail often turns out to be pretty messy once you are in the Oval Office. It seems like an age ago that Obama took the oath of office on a frigid day in January, chastising the country for "our collective failure to make hard choices'' and our willingness to suspend national ideals "for expedience's sake.''

That was a clear signal of Obama's determination to undo a range of policies—from the harsh interrogation of terror suspects and illegal domestic wiretapping, to the invasion of Iraq—that hurt America's image around the world.

But "undoing the damage"—the theme of this White House—is quite tricky, whether it's foreign affairs or repairing the nation's economy. And now that the new President is no longer so new, he can't afford to complain that every problem is one he inherited.

"When a President tries new policies to deal with old problems and then new policies appear to be failed policies, then he owns it,'' says George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "That's the challenge for a President.''

Obama's biggest success and best grades so far go to his management of the economy, and even there he has yet to turn the corner. The country is still in a recession with unemployment around 10 percent, the highest level in decades.

But the banks that Obama rescued—with huge injections of taxpayer funds that many of his critics decried as socialism—did not fail as many feared. Several have even paid back their bailout money early. And public investment restored confidence that the government would not let key financial institutions collapse, which has since begun to lure back private investors.

Another FDR?

Will that be enough? President Franklin D. Roosevelt is credited with leading the country out of its worst economic crisis, the Great Depression. Can Obama steer the nation out of the Great Recession?

"To warrant comparisons with Roosevelt,'' writes Stanford historian David M. Kennedy, "he will be judged not simply on whether he manages a rescue from the current economic crisis, but also on whether he grasps the opportunity to make us more resilient to face those future crises that inevitably await us.''

FDR didn't have to face one of Obama's other big challenges: Restoring America's image abroad—particularly in the Muslim world, where attitudes toward the U.S. were at a low point when he took office. Obama has put a great deal of effort into this area. The first TV interview he did from the White House was for an Arabic-language news channel, and he sent Iranians a Persian New Year greeting in March. He visited Turkey in April, citing the Koran in his speech to the Parliament. And in June, he went to Cairo, Egypt, and gave a major address aimed at finding common ground with Muslims worldwide.

He seems to have made progress. But while many in the Muslim world love the messenger, they continue to question the message. "Egyptians still think that this one-of-a-kind American President can do great things,'' wrote Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany after the speech. "Young Egyptians' admiration for America is offset by frustration with American foreign policy."

Much of the enthusiasm overseas for Obama stems from his historic role as America's first black President—a fact that has touched off debate, from France to Southeast Asia, about whether other countries could elect a minority as their head of state.

Add to that Obama's extraordinary gift for communication. If Roosevelt soothed a jittery nation with his fireside chats, Obama has helped restore confidence by carefully explaining his policies and candidly discussing America's shortcomings. And whether he's filling out his NCAA bracket on ESPN or dashing out of the White House to grab lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, the President projects an air of calm and confidence. What's more, his young, attractive family has brought some glamour back to the White House.

Whatever his successes so far, the President's in-box is still filled with tough challenges. Every morning, he gets a national-security briefing about a world that is testing his mettle—and his vow to "engage" America's adversaries in a way that his predecessor, George W. Bush, did not.

North Korea has said outright that it isn't interested in negotiating with the U.S.—possibly because its longtime ruler, Kim Jong Il, is ailing and a power struggle over his successor seems likely. When North Korea set off its second nuclear test in May, Obama declared a change in strategy: The U.S., he said, would no longer reward North Korea with aid, food, and diplomatic concessions. But that leaves very little for the two countries to talk about, and many fear a confrontation is coming.

The hardest engagement problem is Iran. For his first five months in office, President Obama sent public and secret messages to the Iranians, offering direct negotiations over their suspected nuclear-weapons program—a big change from the Bush era, when the President refused to talk to Tehran unless it first halted its nuclear program.

But the aftermath of the Iranian election in June changed everything. After President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in an election widely considered a fraud, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in protest, and a violent crackdown soon followed. Suddenly Obama faced a huge dilemma: How can he negotiate with a regime that shot a 26-year-old woman on the street, a moment captured on a video seen by millions on YouTube?

Then there's the ongoing issue of the two wars Obama inherited, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. has roughly 200,000 troops in both countries, and more than 5,000 Americans have been killed. The U.S. has pulled back from Iraqi cities and begun reducing troop levels there, but Obama has sent another 21,000 U.S. troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, which he sees as the front line in the war against terrorism.

Some U.S. generals in Afghanistan say that still may not be enough to retake control of the country. And in Iraq, the big question is whether the country will hold together as the U.S. continues to withdraw its forces.

What Lies Ahead?

Back at home, no one knows how the American economy will fare over the next few years and whether the government rescue of American carmakers will work. In an effort to save General Motors and Chrysler, the government essentially took over both companies and forced them into bankruptcy to reorganize.

This is politically risky: What if G.M., even under government ownership, cannot produce cars Americans actually want to buy? That would be "a huge embarrassment," a Cabinet member recently confided. And it's possible that Obama's ambitious plans for health-care reform just won't fly.

"To be candid with you, I don't know that he has the votes right now," says Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.

How all the rest of these issues play out is anybody's guess. Will relations with Iran and North Korea improve, or are we headed for confrontation, given Obama's declaration that we cannot accept either country as a nuclear power? Will the economy recover? Will the situation in Afghanistan improve?

"The most difficult thing is trying to make sure that we are handling the issues in the correct sequence in relation to world events,'' says General James L. Jones, the President's national security adviser.

Because when you're the President, it's not just good grades you need—it's good results.