Saturday, November 8, 2008

From aspirant to executive: Change comes to Obama

(Originally published 11/8/08)

Almost two years and $700 million removed from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., the triumphant junior senator from the Prairie State stood Tuesday before a sea of supporters as President-elect Barack Obama.

Borne to the stage of victory on a wave and a promise of change, his journey was fueled by soaring oratory that has already made some grade-school textbooks.

But as change has come to America in the form of the nation’s first black president, so has it come to Obama himself. The man Colin Powell called a “transformational leader” has begun a personal transformation –- from candidate to commander, from dreamer to doer. And he’s likely finding out that achieving the change he has promised will be tougher than delivering the speeches in which he described it.

Even as he anticipated victory and planned his transition to power, Obama began tamping down supporters’ expectations that change would come quickly. Indeed, Obama noted Tuesday night that change may not be accomplished “in one year or even in one term.”

Obama received his first complete intelligence briefing on Thursday, so the perspective he had on world affairs that morning had likely changed a bit by afternoon. He heard everything we know about those who plot against America, including details about covert operations and tips provided by American spies tucked away in plain sight around the globe.

During the campaign, Obama pledged to create a new tone in Washington, an atmosphere of cooperation among public officials who could “disagree without being disagreeable.” On Thursday, he hired U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton Administration, as his chief of staff. Emanuel -– a man political observers have called “ruthless” -– has West Wing experience, but his appointment is a disappointment for those who had hoped Obama’s administration would transcend the very unapologetic partisanship and fierce rhetoric that Emanuel embodies.

Obama spent nearly two years decrying the “Karl Rove-style politics” of the Bush Administration. But given the opportunity with his first and most important non-Cabinet appointment to un-Rove the White House, he chose in Emanuel a Rove all his own.

On Election Night, Obama assured Americans who did not vote for him, “I hear your voices ... And I will be your president, too.”

Ironically, while Obama made hope the handmaiden of his message of change, it is Americans who supported John McCain who are now left to haltingly, if skeptically, hope – hope that a man whose economic motives they mistrust and whose experience they question will be able to govern with the same singular focus and determination to succeed that won him the White House.

Much of Obama’s executive destiny will be determined in the Senate, where Democrats await final word on their swelling majority. Democratic wins in just two of the four outstanding races will render GOP filibusters impracticable and likely deliver to Obama his signature proposals –- and a large portion of the federal judiciary –- on a silver platter.

Faced, then, with pursuing change in a system that was built to resist it, Obama’s biggest challenge to change may be practicing his politics-above-partisanship promise when the only check on Obama’s power is the president himself.

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