'I need your help'

Obama assesses tasks ahead, challenges Americans in crisis

Election 2008

November 06, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama shifted yesterday to the task of forming his administration, amid concerns that the nation's challenges could lead to dashed hopes among his most ardent supporters.

Obama, who spent the day meeting privately with aides in Chicago, will find the task of governing greatly complicated by the economic downturn, analysts said.

With far less money available for new spending, he risks letting down supporters whose anticipation soared after his landslide electoral victory.

Obama cast a sober look ahead Tuesday night at the problems he'll inherit.

The threats, he said, are "the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century."

In a remarkable plea to the nation by a newly elected president, he said, "I need your help."

His preview of what lies ahead could be seen as a clear-eyed view into the future, an attempt to lower expectations, or both.

There "will be setbacks and false starts," he cautioned on election night. Everything may not get done in one year, he said, "or even in one term."

Before he takes office, he may get drawn into decisions in Washington that could influence the size of the problems he faces. In less than two weeks, Congress will return to craft another economic stimulus package, which Obama could help shape.

House Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland put a $100 billion price tag on the proposal yesterday, and there have been estimates that it could exceed $150 billion.

Hoyer said the initiative would likely include expanded food stamp and unemployment assistance for those hardest hit by the downturn, plus state aid for Medicaid costs and new infrastructure spending.

In September, Republicans blocked a stimulus plan smaller than the one now being considered.

One specialist on presidential transitions said Obama would be wise to distance himself from Washington policy decisions over the next 75 days.

"He's not president and he doesn't have the full powers of the presidency," said Paul C. Light, a public service professor at New York University. "Any engagement will be seen as meddling or, worse, as an effort to inject himself prematurely into the presidency."

The excitement surrounding Obama's election, which drew millions of young people and minorities into politics for the first time, will lead many Americans to expect the new president to deliver on his promise of drastic change, Democrats said.

Obama "goes into office with more expectations than any president I can ever remember in my lifetime," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

A strengthened Democratic majority could tackle initiatives blocked by President Bush such as stem cell research and an expanded children's health insurance program, she said.

But Pelosi, too, cautioned against expecting big changes to happen quickly and said it would take "some time to get much of this done."

There were other postelection warnings, too, about unrealistic hopes among racial minorities, who may see the first African-American president as the answer to long-deferred dreams.

"The thing is to not burden brother Obama to try to solve all our problems," said Deborah Simmons, a Washington Times columnist, at a conference sponsored by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that studies issues of interest to African-Americans.

At the same time, she criticized Obama (and McCain) for focusing their campaigns on middle-class voters and virtually ignoring the needs of poor Americans.

While some analysts have likened the tasks facing Obama to those that confronted Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, William A. Galston, a White House aide in the last Democratic administration, called the comparison overblown.

"This is closer to 1993," when Bill Clinton came to power, said Galston, who was part of that transition. "We have a very serious economic situation, but we're not in a depression - yet - and we all hope we don't get there.

"There's a difference between 6 percent unemployment and 25. And I don't think we've yet reached the point where, the minute after he finishes his inaugural address, the new president will have to close all of America's banks," as Roosevelt did.

The Democrats' election victory was fueled by a substantial shift away from the party in power at the White House during a time of economic distress and by deep pessimism about the direction things are headed in the country, exit polls showed.

The handover to an Obama administration, quietly under way for months, went public with the announcement of a 28-member transition team. Most are top Obama aides from his Senate office or the campaign, former Clinton administration officials, advisers from Chicago or Harvard Law School classmates.

A new White House chief of staff is likely to be among the first high-profile appointments.

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