Presidential Honeymoons and 2009

Israel’s commitment of ground troops in Gaza brings the crisis to a new and surely more dangerous level. Its rejection of calls for a ceasefire and Hamas’s resistance to halting rocket attacks into southern Israel mean Barack Obama will already have a major foreign policy crisis on his hands by the time he assumes office. Add to this the stimulus package and the bipartisan support Obama needs to deal with the deepening economic recession, and it is clear the new president will face the most difficult start since FDR took the oath of office in 1932.

On the domestic level, there are two political crises emerging that admittedly pale in comparison with the international and economic issues, but are nonetheless distracting and annoying to the Democratic president. Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, embattled as he is, has appointed Roland Burris as the remplacement for Obama’s senate seat. However, the Democrats are threatening to boycott Burris’ appointment because of the Illinois governor’s troubles. Meanwhile, Democrat Al Franken is about 50 votes ahead in Minnesota over the Republican incumbent and Republicans are threatening to prevent Franken from occupying his seat until all legal recourses have been exhausted.

Elsewhere, fighting in Iraq and Afganistan remains fierce. India and Pakistan have once again emerged as a significant international flashpoint for major confrontation. Al Qaeda is still a definite threat to America and its allies. Elections will also take place in Iran, India and Israel this year with certain repercussions on US foreign policy. Expectations about healthcare and global warming will not go away. And questions over bailouts and their effectiveness for the financial world and the car industry will continue to be on the carpet.

This is the world Obama will inherit on January 20. The promises and the rhetoric of his extraordinary campaign will now come face to face with the harsh reality of government. The presidential transition period, longer than in most democracies, has featured by some spectacular and impressive appointments. Even Republicans have applauded some choices. But all this is business as usual when it comes to Washington politics and presidential politics. The American public expected something more and something different from their choice for president. The expectation level now ascribed to the incoming Obama administration is sky-high.

Americans will want their new president to show leadership early. The dynamic in the Mideast will have to change dramatically if the Obama presidency is to be significant in dealing with peace and security; the economy, if it is the object of a major stimulus effort, will be expected to show clear signs of progress by mid year; and Obama will have to display a new style of leadership after years of alienation with the political class. This is the reality of 2009 and what Barack Obama must deal with. It is also why I believe the honeymoon normally afforded to a new president will be shorter than usual.

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