In Florence, where I participated in NYU’s conference on the U.S. election held at the university’s Florence campus, we dined at Trattoria Garga, which offers, among other delicacies, the best chocolate tart perhaps anywhere on earth. Though I well knew what I would order there, I glanced down perfunctorily at the menu just the same. There on the cover was a photo of the owner’s infant grandson—swaddled in an Obama tee shirt.
Overseas, Obama is, as a McCain commercial once alleged, the “biggest celebrity in the world.” Five days prior to the Florence conference, we had been at a similar presentation at NYU’s new site in Abu Dhabi. If the mood there was less euphoric, it was no less hopeful. On the Arabian Peninsula, the question was whether Obama, facing an economic crisis, could afford to fully engage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No one expects him to turn his back on Israel; but they want him to function as an honest broker and leader in the peace process and to do it from day one.
Obama carries with him not only the power but the burden of hope—encompassing a range of aspiration and need as wide as the nearly unprecedented array of problems he inherits. He said in September, as McCain suspended his campaign, that a President has to be able to do more than one thing at a time. Obama appears entirely up to the challenge. His transition decisions have shown that what we saw on the campaign trail is what we will actually get in the 44th President. One of Richard Nixon’s henchmen famously said: “Watch what we do, not what we say.” With Obama, you get the sense that word and deed are largely seamless.
He said he would transcend past differences and partisan politics. Amazingly, he meant it. Foreigners were as surprised as Washington insiders by the all but certain selection of Sen. Hillary Clinton for the State Department. Meantime, at the President-elect’s behest, Sen. Joe Lieberman has been allowed to turn his coat again and Obama placed another of his rivals for the nomination, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, on his economic team. In addition, Obama has reached out to Republicans: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates may stay for a while and Sen. John McCain could become Obama’s partner in closing Guantanamo and ending torture.
This could all add up to nothing more than a stylish centerpiece if Obama settles for a bite-size presidency. But I don’t believe he is setting such a remarkable tone, assembling a landmark Administration and appointing Hillary Clinton just to wow people. He has established a post-partisan transition as his platform for a far-reaching presidency. It’s politically brilliant—a possible future lesson in presidential statecraft.
In his most recent radio address, Obama previewed an economic stimulus package that would provide hundreds of billions in anti-deflationary spending on infrastructure like roads, bridges and hospitals. Obama’s plan will be as big as the economic problem and, not incidentally, it will be a vehicle for many of his defining campaign pledges—like an historic commitment to clean energy.
Is this plan the sum of his ambition? It is more an indication of its scope. He will do more than one thing at a time. The other big domestic initiative will be health care reform. And he will maneuver to gather Republican votes, letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire as scheduled after 2010 instead of seeking to repeal them immediately. He will be a driving presence, the Bush antidote and what both Americans and the people I met in Abu Dhabi and Florence are asking for—a president who listens and leads.
The Obama who carries the burden as well as the message of hope has also brought us to the point where America can be America again—as his hero Lincoln had it, “the last, best hope of earth.” That doesn’t mean the hill won’t be steep, as he himself has said. It does mean he won’t be summoning us to walk sideways.
America senses Obama’s purpose. So does the world. I will bet that four years from now, on the menu at Garga, there will be a photo of a slightly older child, in kindergarten, happily posing in an Obama tee-shirt.
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