You probably sat in a fancier conference room the last time you refinanced or heard a pitch about life insurance. There's a table, some off-brand mesh office chairs, a bookcase that looks as if it had been put together with an Allen wrench and instructions in Swedish.
To reach this room, you pass through a cubicle farm lightly populated by quiet young people. Either they have just arrived or they are just leaving, because their desks are almost bare. The place has a vaguely familiar feel to it, this air of transient shabbiness and nondescriptitude. You can't quite put your finger on it ...
"It's like the set of The Office," someone offers.
It is here that we find Barack Obama one soul-freezingly cold December day, mentally unpacking the crate of crushing problems some old, some new, all ugly that he is about to inherit as the 44th President of the United States. Most of his hours inside the presidential-transition office are spent in this bland and bare-bones room. You would think the President-elect a guy who draws 100,000 people to a speech in St. Louis, Mo., who raises three-quarters of a billion dollars, who is facing the toughest first year since Franklin Roosevelt's might merit a leather chair. Maybe a credenza? A hutch?
But he doesn't seem to notice. Obama is cheerfully showing his visitors around, gripping the souvenir basketball he received from Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, explaining a snapshot taken the day he played pickup with the University of North Carolina hoops team. ("They are so big and so fast and so strong, you know.") Then, since those two items basically exhaust the room's décor, Obama sits down on one of the mesh chairs and launches into a spoken tour of his world of woes. It's a mind-boggling journey, although he shows no signs of being boggled unless you count the increasingly prevalent salt in his salt-and-pepper hair. By now we are all accustomed to that Obi-Wan Kenobi calm, though we may never entirely understand it. In a soothing monotone, he highlights the scariest hairpin turns on his itinerary, the ones that combine difficulty with danger plus a jolt of existential risk. (See pictures of the Civil Rights movement from Emmett Till to Barack Obama.)
"It is not clear that the economy's bottomed out," he begins, understatedly. (The morning newspaper trumpets the worst unemployment spike in more than 30 years.) "And so even if we take a whole host of the right steps in terms of the economy, two years from now it may not have fully recovered." That worries him. Also Afghanistan: "We're going to have to make a series of not just military but also diplomatic moves that fully enlist Pakistan as an ally in that region, that lessen tensions between India and Pakistan, and then get everybody focused on rooting out militancy in a terrain, a territory, that is very tough and in an enormous country that is one of the poorest and least developed in the world. So that, I think, is going to be a very tough situation.
"And then the third thing that keeps me up at night is the issue of nuclear proliferation," Obama continues, sailing on through the horribles. "And then the final thing, just to round out my Happy List, is climate change. All the indicators are that this is happening faster than even the most pessimistic scientists were anticipating a couple of years ago."
Score that as follows: one imploding economy, one deteriorating war in an impossible region and two versions of Armageddon the bang of loose nukes and the whimper of environmental collapse. That's just for starters; we'll hear the unabridged version shortly.
But first, there is a bit of business to be dealt with, having to do with why you are reading this story in this magazine at this time of the year. It's unlikely that you were surprised to see Obama's face on the cover. He has come to dominate the public sphere so completely that it beggars belief to recall that half the people in America had never heard of him two years ago that even his campaign manager, at the outset, wasn't sure Obama had what it would take to win the election. He hit the American scene like a thunderclap, upended our politics, shattered decades of conventional wisdom and overcame centuries of the social pecking order. Understandably, you may be thinking Obama is on the cover for these big and flashy reasons: for ushering the country across a momentous symbolic line, for infusing our democracy with a new intensity of participation, for showing the world and ourselves that our most cherished myth the one about boundless opportunity has plenty of juice left in it.