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1 Whose President Is He Anyway? on Sun Nov 16, 2008 3:39 am


Whose President Is He Anyway?

Published: November 15, 2008
CHICAGO — It did not go unnoticed among the paisans that Barack Obama loves a four-star Italian restaurant on the Magnificent Mile near the lakefront. Not some pizza joint, but “the Ferrari of Italian cooking,” as Spiaggia’s chef and co-owner, Tony Mantuano, puts it. Appreciation for fine Italian culture, he said, has earned Mr. Obama a strong following in the community. “He’s the pride of the Italians,” Mr. Mantuano said.

Doug Mills/The New York Times
YOURS, MINE, OURS Now that the campaign is over, Barack Obama’s first moves are being watched closely for signals about who he feels most accountable to.
Barack ObamaAnd why not? Practically everyone wants to claim Mr. Obama these days. African-Americans, obviously, but also Hispanic-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans and even white Americans purging feelings of racial guilt. The youth, the netroots, the bipartisan consensus builders, the East Coast elites, the Hollywood crowd. Liberals, centrists and even some conservatives who see Reaganesque qualities. The British, the Germans and other foreigners disaffected with Bush’s America.

“I am like a Rorschach test,” Mr. Obama noted at one point during the campaign. “Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something.”

The Rorschach part may fade with the end of the campaign but the test part is here. Reconciling all those different impressions of who Mr. Obama is and what he stands for may prove as defining a challenge as fixing the economy.

Whose president is he? The standard line from his advisers would naturally be that he’s the president of all Americans. But it rarely works out that simply. Ultimately, the gauzy picture of the campaign trail sharpens in the act of governing. Ultimately, choices are made and illusions shattered. And so many of Mr. Obama’s supporters invested so much passion in him that the potential for let-down seems considerable.

The president-elect’s first few actions and statements since the election have provided some initial clues that are already being scrutinized for larger meaning. His first appointment, for instance, was to make his friend Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois his White House chief of staff.

Some critics saw that as a betrayal of Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge to foster a “new politics” reaching across the aisle in Washington since Mr. Emanuel is such a skilled specialist in the razor-edged old politics of slicing up the opposition. But others saw ideological significance in the fact that Mr. Emanuel has been an advocate for more centrist policies when it comes to issues like trade, crime and welfare.

The selection of Mr. Emanuel and other veterans of President Bill Clinton’s administration to run the transition stood in contrast to Mr. Obama’s message about finally moving beyond the Clinton era. All the more striking was his decision last week to sound out Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton herself as a possible secretary of state. The Clinton faction is pleased, but those who saw Mr. Obama as a clean break may wonder what it means.

Similarly, many inside the Beltway sat up and paid attention when Mr. Obama, through a spokeswoman, said he did not hold any grudges against Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who calls himself an independent Democrat but barnstormed for Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee. Mr. Obama said he would not get involved in deciding whether Mr. Lieberman should keep his committee chairmanship and would welcome his staying in the Democratic caucus.

Republicans and some Democrats were relieved at what they viewed as an act of statesmanship, but some liberals intent on punishing Mr. Lieberman for his heresy were disappointed. Yet interestingly, even among critics of Mr. Lieberman, the statement was interpreted differently.

Greg Sargent, writing on TPM Election Central, argued that the statement “risks giving cover to senators who want to do nothing about Lieberman.” Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, writing on the Daily Kos Web site, said, “Greg Sargent seems to take this as pro-Lieberman. I see it exactly the opposite,” because Mr. Obama did not take a position on the committee chairmanship, which Mr. Moulitsas considers the issue. Even now, Mr. Obama remains what he is in the eye of the beholder.

“He reminds me of John Kennedy in this respect,” said Peter H. Wehner, a former Bush White House official now at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “If you read the books on Kennedy, intellectuals who spoke to Kennedy felt like he was an intellectual; politicians who spoke with him felt like he was a politician. He had the ability to make people think he was what they wanted and what they were looking for. I get the sense that Obama is a little like that and everyone is going to lay claim to him.”

Mr. Obama has an advantage that some other presidents did not, in that he has been a singular political phenomenon who probably does not owe his election primarily to any particular group. If Ronald Reagan leaned heavily on the support of the religious conservatives and Mr. Clinton tried to move his party to the center in search of independents, Mr. Obama did not define himself in strongly ideological terms, even if his record and program are largely left of center.

But it was Mr. Obama who set the expectations so high among so many different constituency groups. His advertising during the primaries urged Democrats to vote for him because he would do nothing less than “save the planet,” which as campaign promises go certainly beats a chicken in every pot.

“There’s going to be enormous pressure on him to produce, to meet these expectations,” said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine who is now national director of the activist group Win Without War.

And among those exerting that pressure will be Mr. Andrews’s fellow opponents of the Iraq war. An early test will be whom Mr. Obama picks for secretary of defense. Advisers have said he is thinking about asking the current Pentagon chief, Robert M. Gates, to stay on, at least for a while, in a show of bipartisanship. But Mr. Andrews said that would undermine the founding ideal of Mr. Obama’s campaign to end the war.

“Clearly when you compare Gates and Rumsfeld it’s night and day; everybody recognizes that,” Mr. Andrews said, referring to Mr. Gates’s predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. “But still, we need to turn the page and have a new direction and deliver clear and strong messages including who is going to be our secretary of defense. The strongest message would be to put in a new team with a new vision.”

Possibly in no area will this tension be more fraught than in race relations. As the first African-American president in a nation long divided over race, Mr. Obama will face crosscurrents that none of his predecessors ever did, embodying as he does the hopes of a long-disenfranchised segment of the population yet determined not to be locked into old paradigms. Many of his actions will be viewed through the lens of race, from the composition of his cabinet to the priority he places on issues historically important to black Americans.

Mr. Obama managed to balance those pressures through nearly two years of campaigning and now will have to do it again. “He’ll still have to be a master manipulator, in a sense, and know how to navigate all those different forces,” said Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. “He has shown himself to be a very cool-under-fire kind of guy.”

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the House majority whip and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, said Mr. Obama would show that he can be bold without being radical and that most black supporters would recognize the limits the economy has placed on what he can do.

“He knows he has to be careful not to make any lurches left or right,” Mr. Clyburn said. “He plays the game inside the hash marks. Anything too far left or too far right would make it a very rocky presidency for him. Most people understand that. Not all people, and I’ve heard from people when I say that, but most people.”

Perhaps, but African-Americans are not the only ones to see in him a unique champion, and the demands for action could be considerable. Two out every three Hispanic voters supported Mr. Obama, an increase of 13 percentage points from four years ago, according to exit polls, and turnout in that demographic shot up by more than 30 percent. Hispanic leaders said they provided the margin of victory in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

“We feel like we had a big stake in the election and that’s what prompted this historic turnout,” said Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza. The advocacy group did wait long to begin publicly pushing the new president-elect to recognize this support with key White House and Cabinet positions.

“At some point in the first term we would definitely expect to see an effort to move responsible immigration reform,” Ms. Murguía said. “It would be a big mistake not to act on this important priority.”

Or all of the other important priorities that the president-elect’s believers assume he will tackle. After all, he’s got a planet to save.

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