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Obama's Challenge

After his historic victory, the President-elect faces a sobering list of issues to deal with, both at home and abroad

By Patricia Smith


No President for generations has walked into the Oval Office confronted by the number of seismic challenges that await Barack Obama. Historians grasping for parallels point to Abraham Lincoln taking office in 1861 as the nation was collapsing into Civil War, or Franklin D. Roosevelt arriving in Washington in 1933 in the middle of the Great Depression.

The task facing President-elect Obama, 47, may not rise to those levels, but it is sobering that these are the comparisons being made. And that's why Obama began addressing what lies ahead on the evening of his victory over Senator John McCain.

"Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime: two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century," Obama told an enormous crowd in Chicago.

"There's new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build, and threats to meet, alliances to repair," he added. "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep."

The President-elect is already conferring with congressional leaders about a $100 billion economic package of unemployment benefits, public works, food stamps, and aid to cities and states.

Obama's election also means that the multicultural, post-racial society so often discussed but so seldom seen in public life is now, literally, the face of America.

"They didn't give us our mule and our acres, but things are better," says Rutha Mae Harris of Albany, Ga., a 67-year-old veteran of the civil rights movement. "It's time to reap some of the harvest."

More than 136 million Americans (about 64 percent of the electorate) cast ballots—the highest turnout since 1908. Young people—those 18 to 29—voted in huge numbers (overwhelmingly for Obama), with their turnout as high as 55 percent.

"There was a tremendous tendency in the '90s to write off young people," says Peter Levine, a youth voting expert. "But Obama, like an entrepreneur who realized there was a latent market, really put some investment into trying to mobilize young people."

Overseas, after years of frustration with many of President Bush's policies, the rest of the world responded enthusiastically to Obama's victory. British historian Tristram Hunt says Obama "brings the narrative that everyone wants to return to—that America is the land of extraordinary opportunity and possibility, where miracles happen."

But the shift from campaign rhetoric to the reality of governing could prove turbulent. For instance, while Obama promised to close the Guantánamo detention facility in Cuba, it may be more difficult than he imagines. He will also inherit a deficit as high as $1 trillion, which could curtail plans like expanding health-care coverage. Dealing with the war in Iraq may also be more complicated than he—or the other candidates—let on.

"You tend to campaign in black and white," says Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "You tend to govern in gray."

Even as Obama focuses initially on the economy, he faces a perilous moment abroad. Terrorists have exploited transitional periods to launch attacks in Britain, Spain, and the U.S., where Al Qaeda first tried to blow up the World Trade Center just weeks after Bill Clinton took office in 1993. And as Vice President-elect Joe Biden noted during the campaign, new Presidents are often tested with an international challenge in their first months in office.

Patience & Healing

Obama has already asked for patience. "There will be setbacks and false starts," he said in his victory speech. With nearly 90 percent of Americans thinking that the country is on the wrong track, he will lead a nation weary of the past and wary of the future.

"Obama this year recognizes the country needs to be healed," says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. "It's been a very rough 10 years, beginning with a very controversial impeachment [of President Clinton], the recount [in Florida in 2000], 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, and now the financial crisis.

"If you think of the shock to the system these things have had over a 10-year period," Beschloss adds, "I think Obama recognizes he needs to really settle our nerves."