2009 Archives

For Obama, big challenges, big expectations


The following is from the Jan. 18, 2009, edition of The Austin American-Statesman. Political Scientist Dennis Simon of SMU's Dedman College provided expertise for this story.

January 20, 2009

By Jody Seaborn

The challenges Barack Obama will face when he becomes president Tuesday — the economic crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, instability in the Middle East — make up a truly daunting list.

But a different sort of problem, possibly just as hard to overcome,also awaits Obama: meeting the euphoric expectations that surround his inauguration, expectations so high that it seems a single disappointment could get magnified into disillusionment.

As Associated Press-GfK poll released Friday showed that 65 percent of 1,001 adults randomly surveyed think Obama will be an "above average" or better president. According to the AP, no other president-elect has been viewed less skeptically than Obama in at least a generation.

"Are expectations heightened? I would say yes, largely for two reasons: one, the historical nature of his presidency and two, the economic crisis," said Dennis Simon, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

The economic crisis has created a public perception that not only has Obama broken the race barrier in presidential politics but that he's also been given a Mount Rushmore moment — a monumental national challenge, and thus an opportunity for presidential greatness.

In addition, his most ardent supporters see him as the antidote to eight disastrous years under President George W. Bush, and they look forward to Obama reversing Bush's most controversial policies.

But Obama might be forced to adjust his agenda to circumstances and the realities of governing.

"I think it has hit him like a tsunami, all that he has to do in a short time," said Willard Randall, a history scholar at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt. "How far he gets with his most serious promises must be a matter that keeps him awake at night."

Obama, by all available evidence and behavior to date, is a pragmatic politician — a fact many of his supporters may not fully appreciate.

"Very pragmatic," Simon said, "with an interest in getting something done rather than making a radio talk-show argument."

Further, Obama wants to build a bipartisan consensus for his agenda — a pursuit that might, in the end, prove illusory while testing his supporters' patience.

"One of the fundamental problems he faces is there are not as many moderates of either party in Congress anymore," Simon said. "The challenge to bipartisanship is pretty substantial."

Chasing bipartisanship, and reaching any compromise necessary to achieve it, could push away many of his more enthusiastic supporters.

The risk of great disappointment is "probably more likely to be true primarily on the left," said Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas. "And I think it will be sooner as opposed to later."

Obama might put "too much store in his legislative experience and his respect for the legislative branch, where mutual accommodation is the overwhelming dynamic," said Terry Sullivan, as associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and executive director of the White House Transition Project.

"Accommodation is often a strategy for sliding to the bottom," finding that which is least offensive and most common, Sullivan said. Great accomplishments often require "bucking the notion of accommodation and the dynamics of accommodation."

Obama's temperament, at least the public display of it, is measured — "unflappable" is a word that comes up again and again. It is a characteristic that "will serve him well in most circumstances," Shaw said. "On the other hand, there will be occasions when the bully pulpit will call for passion — and not just eloquence, but passion."

Simon says at some point in the months ahead Obama will face an issue where he will have to stand his ground, and risk losing. But for now, Simon thinks Obama has "the credibility and the political capital" for success.

"He's probably going to have a little more slack in terms of the length of the honeymoon, simply because I think it's reasonably clear that he's inheriting substantial problems," Simon said.

A strong majority of respondents — 71 percent — in the AP-GfK poll released Friday were optimistic that Obama would help improve the economy.

"There are enormous expectations just as there are enormous challenges," Sullivan said, but presidents desire big issues — paths to greatness.

As Sullivan said, "This is when you get a whole chapter in the history book named after you."

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