(6 of 6)
Of course, the bullet points are easy to list; far harder is the task of spending vast sums perhaps $1 trillion over two years efficiently, effectively and quickly enough to spur the economy. Washington's three goblins waste, fraud and abuse are watching with hungry eyes. Obama has cast Orszag as a flinty keeper of the purse strings, but he has no intention of letting his opportunity go by. "I don't think that Americans want hubris from their next President," Obama says, noting that McCain received nearly 47% of the vote last month. However, "I do think that we received a strong mandate for change. And I know that people have said, 'Well, what does this change word mean? You know that it's sort of ill defined.' Actually, we defined it pretty precisely during the campaign, and I'm trying to define it further for people during this transition," he says. "It means a government that is not ideologically driven. It means a government that is competent. It means a government, most importantly, that is focused day in, day out on the needs and struggles, the hopes and dreams of ordinary people."
IV. Into the Breach
More than 75 years ago, a new president took the oath of office amid economic catastrophe and admonished the nation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Today generations of Americans are experiencing a harsh tutorial in the true meaning of that resonant diagnosis. Fear is kryptonite to the economy, which cannot operate efficiently without broad and well-founded confidence that wise investments will gain value, that balance sheets mean what they say, that contracts will be honored and bills paid.
The events of the past autumn produced the sharpest drop in consumer confidence ever recorded, and a similar wave of fear cratered credit markets. Obama notes the very real structural flaws in the economy, but he is also aware of the role that fear plays. "Nobody trusts other people's books anymore. And people decide, 'Well, I'm just going to hold on to my cash for a while,'" he explains. "And that compounds the crisis. And all that results in a contraction in lending, in consumer spending, which then has a real impact on Main Street. And so what starts off as psychological is now very real."
Just like our banks and our carmakers, America's shattered confidence is in serious need of a bailout. And the thing about competence is that it nourishes fresh confidence. "Yes, we can" is both an affirmation of optimism and the essential claim of the competent. When the slogan is rooted in a record of accomplishment when tomorrow's yes-we-can is backed up by yesterday's yes-we-did confidence and competence begin to feed on each other. This virtuous cycle of possibility isn't the whole of leadership, but it is an important part and perhaps the element most needed in today's sea of troubles. (See pictures of Obama's nation of hope.)
After the election, veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart convened one last focus group to ask Virginia voters why a state that gave Bush an 8-point victory four years ago chose Obama by 6 points this time. Their responses clustered around the crucial connection between competence and confidence. They told Hart they were drawn to Obama's self-assured and calming personality. They felt he was "honest," a "straight shooter" in other words, a person who does what he says he will do. Their confidence in Obama wasn't starry-eyed; they hadn't been swept away by his stadium speeches. They saw a man who can get some things done, at a time when so many of their leaders, from Pennsylvania Avenue to Wall Street, cannot. He made moderates feel hopeful, and even among many core Republicans who did not ultimately vote for him, Obama inspired admiration. Viewing these comments through the results of his national surveys, Hart discerned a surge of good feeling that he had not seen in a generation: "a sense of real hope," he says, "and the kind of broad bipartisan support that has not been in evidence since the 1980 Reagan election."
Obama has begun to turn his thoughts to his Inaugural Address. According to strategist Axelrod, he is looking for the right mixture of bracing and boost in a speech that will be "both sober and hopeful." He may signal a new day by announcing a plan to stem the foreclosure crisis, which aides say is in the works. As the gray Chicago sky frowns outside his conference-room window, Obama rehearses his message. Americans "should anticipate that 2009 is going to be a tough year," he says. Then he adds, "If we make some good choices, I'm confident that we can limit some of the damage in 2009. And that in 2010 we can start seeing an upward trajectory on the economy."
A few days after this interview, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich reminded the country that some aspects of politics will never change. Government is a human enterprise, after all, and Obama, like everyone else, is bound by its limits and subject to human frailty. Nevertheless, if he has shown anything this year, Obama has made it clear that he knows how to write new playbooks and do things in new ways. Which is a compelling quality right now. His arrival on the scene feels like a step into the next century his genome is global, his mind is innovative, his world is networked, and his spirit is democratic. Perhaps it takes a new face to see the promise in a future that now looks dark. What's in store for Obama's America? "I don't have a crystal ball," he says. But the measure of his success in menacing times can be found in the number and variety of people who consider the question with eagerness alongside their dread.
with reporting by Massimo Calabresi and Michael Duffy / Washington