WASHINGTON — No president since before Barack Obama was born has ascended to the Oval Office confronted by the accumulation of seismic challenges awaiting him. Historians grasping for parallels point to Abraham Lincoln taking office as the nation was collapsing into Civil War, or Franklin D. Roosevelt arriving in Washington in the throes of the Great Depression.
The task facing Mr. Obama does not rise to those levels, but that these are the comparisons most often cited sobers even Democrats rejoicing at their return to power. On the shoulders of a 47-year-old first-term senator, with the power of inspiration yet no real executive experience, now falls the responsibility of prosecuting two wars, protecting the nation from terrorist threat and stitching back together a shredded economy.
Given the depth of these issues, Mr. Obama has little choice but to “put your arm around chaos,” in the words of Leon E. Panetta, the former White House chief of staff who has been advising his transition team.
“You better damn well do the tough stuff up front, because if you think you can delay the tough decisions and tiptoe past the graveyard, you’re in for a lot of trouble,” Mr. Panetta said. “Make the decisions that involve pain and sacrifice up front.”
What kind of decision maker and leader Mr. Obama will be remains unclear even to many of his supporters. Will he be willing to use his political capital and act boldly, or will he move cautiously and risk being paralyzed by competing demands from within his own party? His performance under the harsh lights of the campaign trail suggests a figure with remarkable coolness and confidence under enormous pressure, yet also one who rarely veers off the methodical path he lays out.
“It leads you to wonder whether passivity is the way he approaches most things,” said John R. Bolton, President Bush’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “It does indicate a style of governance that is extremely laid back. For all the talk about Bush and cowboy diplomacy, a passive America is not really what they want either.”
Mr. Obama’s advisers said he would not be passive and would move quickly to demonstrate leadership without waiting for the transfer of authority on Jan. 20. He intends to start by naming three co-leaders of his transition team on Wednesday, including John D. Podesta, the former Clinton chief of staff; Valerie Jarrett, a longtime Obama adviser; and Pete Rouse, Mr. Obama’s Senate chief of staff.
Mr. Obama may also have a news conference and announce top White House appointees by the end of the week, advisers said. Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, a former Clinton aide and close friend of Mr. Obama, may become White House chief of staff, well-connected Democrats said. Mr. Obama’s advisers say they anticipate the nomination of secretaries of state and treasury by Thanksgiving.
While Roosevelt refused to get involved in prescribing economic medicine between his election in 1932 and his inauguration, advisers said Mr. Obama had concluded that he could not follow that example and remain silent until he was sworn in. At the same time, they said, Mr. Obama understands he should not overstep his bounds and wants his inauguration to mark a clean break from the past.
“Those who say wait and let the process unfold for two months before the inauguration are sorely mistaken,” said Jack Quinn, a former top official in the Clinton administration. “We are in such turmoil that his clearly and firmly putting his hand on the tiller is absolutely critical. He needs to do this. He needs to be in the middle of this.”
Mr. Obama has been conferring with Congressional leaders about a possible package of $100 billion for public works, unemployment benefits, winter heating assistance, food stamps and aid to cities and states that could be passed during a lame-duck session the week of Nov. 17. He has also been talking regularly with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. about the economic environment and hopes to work closely with him during this interim period as Mr. Paulson makes decisions about how to invest the $700 billion given him by Congress to shore up the financial system.
But there are limits to Mr. Obama’s capacity to act in the short term. The politics of assembling a stimulus package in this netherworld between administrations could be difficult to overcome as he tries to balance pent-up demand from now-victorious Democrats eager to use their power of the purse with the reality that Mr. Bush still holds the veto pen for 77 more days. In the end, Democrats said, Mr. Obama and Congressional leaders would pare their spending plans if they could not get Mr. Bush and Senate Republicans to agree, then come back in January when they have unfettered control.
“If he gets out there too much and gets too enmeshed in policy disputes before he’s inaugurated, when he doesn’t have control of the federal bureaucracy, that could really backfire on him,” said Elaine C. Kamarck, who was Vice President Al Gore’s domestic policy adviser in the 1990s. “It’s a really delicate balance he has to strike.”
Whatever collaboration there may be in the short term, Mr. Obama represents the end of the Bush era in the long term. Yet he will find himself dealing with the Bush legacy for years to come. He promised on the campaign trail to close the detention facility at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but analysts in both parties expect that to be more difficult than he imagines. He will inherit a deficit that could approach $1 trillion next year, which could curtail his ambitions, like expanding health care coverage.
As a result, the shift from campaign trail rhetoric to halls-of-governance reality could prove turbulent. And Mr. Obama’s soaring speeches have created such a well of anticipation that there is a deep danger of letdown. He talked during the campaign of a “new politics” bringing Republicans and Democrats together. But if he really works with Republicans to find common ground on issues like Iraq, terrorism and climate change, he risks alienating his liberal base.
“You tend to campaign in black and white. You tend to govern in gray,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has worked for four presidents, most recently Mr. Bush.
Even as Mr. Obama focuses initially on the economy, he faces a perilous moment abroad. Terrorists have exploited transitional moments in the West to launch attacks in Britain, Spain and even the United States, where Al Qaeda first tried to blow up the World Trade Center just weeks after Bill Clinton took office in 1993. “The range of problems and intensity of the risks has grown enormously in recent years,” said James B. Steinberg, who was Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser.
And the beginning, as a new administration takes shape, is when the ranks of government are at their thinnest
The concern over potential vulnerability has grown all the more acute for this first handover of power since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Obama transition team has made more extensive pre-election preparations than any other previous president-elect. Thanks to a new law signed by Mr. Bush, some of Mr. Obama’s transition advisers should have interim security clearances starting on Wednesday.
All the preparation in the world, however, can fall apart in an unexpected crisis.
“There’s always some surprise that you can’t plan for,” said Nancy E. Soderberg, a top national security aide under Mr. Clinton. She recalled the first President George Bush’s decision to send troops into Somalia just before handing over the Oval Office to Mr. Clinton. This time, Ms. Soderberg said, “my guess is it will be something in Pakistan.”
Mr. Obama starts with powerful advantages at home and abroad. His election will be welcomed by many around the world disaffected with the Bush administration. And Mr. Obama will have a Congress even more decisively controlled by Democrats after the sweep on Tuesday night. “He’s not going to be held up by difficult confirmation fights,” said Craig Fuller, who was a top aide to President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush.
But the task awaiting Mr. Obama arguably transcends this economic program or that foreign crisis. He takes over a nation weary of the past and wary of the future, gloomy about its place in the world, cynical about its government and desperate for some sense of deliverance. Nearly nine of every 10 Americans think the country is on the wrong track, the deepest expression of national pessimism in the polling history.
“Obama this year recognizes the country needs to be healed,” said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “It’s been a very rough 10 years, beginning with a very controversial impeachment, the recount, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina and now the financial crisis.
“If you think of the shock to the system these things have had over a 10-year period, I think Obama recognizes he needs to really settle our nerves.”