“‘Only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now.”
By Toby Harnden, US Editor in Washington
An economic crisis and a collapse of confidence in American capitalism.
The departure of a reviled predecessor who bequeathed an unpopular war.
These were the challenges faced, respectively, by presidents Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and Gerald Ford – the last United States commander-in-chief to arrive from Congress – in 1974.
President Barack Obama will have to deal with not just one of these situations but all three. Not only that but the expectations of him in some quarters, which aides are now frantically trying to manage, border on the divine.
Like John F. Kennedy in 1961, he arrives as a former Senator with an attractive young family who has just broken through a historic barrier and upon whose shoulders the hopes and dreams of Americans now rest.
Of these four former presidents, two were cut down in their prime by an assassin’s bullet and have been judged reverently by historians. Mr Roosevelt completed two terms and is judged as a great president. Mr Ford, however, was rejected by voters and only in death was accorded a verdict of grudging, and limited admiration.
While great challenges present the opportunity for a president to make his mark on history, falling short in testing times is a quick route to ignominy.
The signs for Mr Obama are propitious. His predecessor George W. Bush departed office with an approval rating of just 22 per cent, making him the most unpopular outgoing president since polls began after plummeting from record poll support after the September 11 attacks of 2001.
As the first black president of a nation founded by slave owners, Mr Obama has a deep well of goodwill from which to draw. Already, he has enough political capital to act boldly and risk making some mistakes.
During the 77-day transition of power, the former Illinois senator has drawn praise even from his detractors for a deliberate and well planned organisation – helped greatly by gracious co-operation from Mr Bush – that avoided the pitfalls and chaos that so many incoming presidents fell victim to.
Mr Obama himself has hailed his post-election efficiency, highlighting another potential problem – a self-confidence that occasionally borders on smugness.
“Early on, maybe we made it look too easy,” he said last week. “I think people should just remember what we accomplished here. We put a cabinet and White House staff in place in record time in the midst of the biggest emergency since World War Two. That’s a pretty good track record.”
Mr Obama’s most significant move has been to enlist his campaign opponent Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. But while this may have neutralised a potential enemy, he also runs the risk of allowing the former First Lady – who still harbours presidential ambitions for 2012 – to build up a rival power base from within.
He might also have sowed the seeds of disillusionment among some of his more idealistic activists, who took him at his word when he said he would change politics and draw a line under the Bush-Clinton White House years stretching back to 1988.
Now, Mr Obama is filling his administration with former Clinton advisers and it is an open question whether this strategy is clever magnanimity or folly.
Invoking a spirit of bipartisanship, Mr Obama has kept on Robert Gates, Mr Bush’s Pentagon chief, and assiduously wooed Senator John McCain, his general election opponent and a foreign policy hawk.
Mr Obama has been lauded for dining with conservative columnists in Washington. But this olive branch might owe more to a concern about shaping elite opinion as it does to a genuine desire to take heed of opposing viewpoints.
In his career thus far, Mr Obama’s bipartisanship has seldom extended much further than the rhetorical flourishes of his speeches.
Already, Mr Obama has tempered some of his more liberal campaign pronouncements, even praising Dick Cheney, who has a public approval rating of 13 per cent and was branded by his successor Joe Biden as “the most dangerous vice president we’ve had”, for advocating caution over changing legal and intelligence rules.
After Mr Cheney said tartly that “before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it” Mr Obama responded: “I think that was pretty good advice.”
Although Mr Obama intends to issue an executive order directing the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp after seven years, his aides concede that it may take at least a year to achieve this. Freeing inmates, he concedes, could put America at grave risk.
In his November 4 victory speech, Mr Obama proclaimed “to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world” that “a new dawn of American leadership is at hand”.
The reality might not be quite so simple. Israel used the transition to mount a ferocious assault on Gaza in a blatant attempt to change the facts on the ground before the new president was sworn in.
Nothing Mr Obama said on the campaign trail indicated he would depart from America’s traditional staunch support of Israel. The domestic financial crisis, moreover, not to mention the weakening of Israel’s peace lobby, is likely to limit the chances of a serious attempt at negotiating a Middle East peace in his first term.
Elected on the basis on ending the Iraq war, Mr Obama will need to safeguard the gains the Iraq troop surge – which he opposed – if he is to keep the US on the path to victory.
In Afghanistan – the “good” war for which Mr Obama has pledged his own troop surge – the dangers of troops becoming bogged down and facing an ever-fiercer insurgency are acute.
Among Mr Bush’s greatest achievements has been to prevent an attack in the more than seven years since al-Qaeda struck the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, slaughtering more than 3,000.
While Mr Obama’s pledge to outlaw torture and follow international law have earned him international plaudits, American opinion could turn swiftly against him if he is blamed for leaving his country vulnerable to Islamist extremists.
Mr Bush’s unpopularity abroad has tended to mask the extent to which many of his policies have been fairly standard approaches to promoting enduring American interests. The world might well be disappointed to find out that Mr Obama might not adopt a radically different foreign policy.
During the campaign, a loose-lipped Mr Biden warned that Mr Obama would face an early test by terrorists or a hostile foreign power. In 1993, President Bill Clinton has to respond to an attempt to blow up the World Trade Centre in New York and deal with a failed American humanitarian mission in Somalia.
Mr Bush’s aversion to “nation building” and plans for a “humble” foreign policy were shelved after the 9/11 attacks. Mr Obama is likely to face challenges that could knock him off course and make him question his foreign policy instincts.
Asked by a homeless shelter worker on Tuesday whether he was sweating, Mr Obama – a supremely fit 47-year-old who is devoted to the gym and basketball – responded: “Nah, I don’t sweat. You ever see me sweat?” Keeping his cool in government might be more of a challenge than he imagines.
As Christopher Hitchens, who voted for Mr Obama put it this week, “there’s an element of hubris in all this current hope-mongering”.
While many presidents have entered the White House with similarly thin foreign policy experience, few have been as green as Mr Obama.
A United States Senator for a mere four years, he has never held executive office and it remains to be seen how his calm, deliberate manner will translate into dealing with the hurly-burly of governing and unexpected events.
Mr Obama prides himself on his normality and his ability to relate to ordinary Americans. As recently as 2000, he made an ill-fated trip to Los Angeles in which he had his credit card rejected and failed to gain admittance to the Democratic party convention. Four years ago, he could shop in Washington unmolested.
Already, Mr Obama is chafing against being inside “the bubble”, insulated from life beyond his inner circle. Against the advice of his lawyers, he appears poised to keep his beloved BlackBerry, a link to the outside world.
But power and security – already at unprecedented levels for Mr Obama – can be distorting. Mr Bush was mocked for declaring himself “the decider”, as if it did not matter what anyone else thought.
Responding In November to claims that his appointment of Clinton associates was an abandonment of his campaign slogan of “change”, Mr Obama seemed to say that he was the personification of change and his very presence should be enough to reassure.
“Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost,” he said. “It comes from me.”
The comedian Chris Rock has compared Mr Obama to a celebrity who is beyond mockery. “There’s no Brad Pitt jokes. You know, what are you going to say? “Ooh, you used to have sex with Jennifer Anniston. Now you have sex with Angelina Jolie. You’re such a loser. There’s nothing to say about Brad Pitt.”
Mr Obama was similar. “It’s like ‘Ooh, you’re young and virile and you’ve got a beautiful wife and kids. You’re the first African-American president.’ You know, what do you say?” As president, however, this sweet spot cannot last and one of Mr Obama’s biggest tests might come when his poll ratings slip and, as he inevitably will, he occasionally looks a little foolish.
Mr Obama’s inauguration speech contained clear echoes of Mr Kennedy’s 1961 address. The former Massachusetts senator called for patience, telling Americans: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days.
Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime… But let us begin.”
Mr Kennedy also called Americans to service with the famous exhortation: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country… My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
But Mr Kennedy proved to be a cautious even timid president and, buffeted by events and slowed by a desire to remain popular, Mr Obama might yet be slow to match the fineness of his words with effective action.
Recognising the daunting task ahead of him, Mr Obama told crowds on Monday: “‘Only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now.
“Our nation is at war, our economy is in crisis. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes. They’re worried about how they’ll afford college for their kids or pay the stack of bills on their kitchen tables.
“And most of all, they are anxious and uncertain about the future, about whether this generation of Americans will be able to pass on what’s best about this country to our children and their children.”
The fact that the economic crisis erupted in the final days of the Bush administration will allow Mr Obama some respite. The nearly one trillion dollars he will be able to release in economic stimulus funds could pay for many of his campaign spending promises.
But Wednesday, which new White House aides are calling “day one”, will mark the moment when Mr Obama’s uncommon eloquence and ability to encapsulate America’s ills will become mere prologue.
If can overcome the huge challenges that he spoken of so lyrically then greatness awaits him. But other new presidents who have promised to change Washington and usher in a new era have found that events and the limits of the power of the White House have conspired to stifle their dreams.