Professors examine future challenges for new president
John Tierney | Thursday, November 6, 2008
The challenge for President Elect Barack Obama will not end with Tuesday’s election, but will continue until and beyond his inauguration on January 20, 2009, according to Notre Dame professors of American Studies Robert Schmuhl and Matt Storin.
Assembling a White House staff and a Cabinet is Obama’s next step on his road to the presidency.
“Given the problems that exist domestically and internationally, he will need to move quickly to assert himself as president,” Schmuhl said. “This will mean appointing his cabinet and staffing his administration quickly and what will be interesting to watch here is whether he emphasizes bipartisanship in the selection process.”
Storin predicts Obama will choose to have a bipartisan staff.
“I definitely think you will see some symbolic moves including appointing two or three high profile Republicans in the senior levels of his administration,” he said.
Obama’s bipartisanship will extend into his dealings with Congress, according to Storin.
“He will make efforts to reach out to Republicans to socialize with them somewhat,” he said. “I wouldn’t rule out his working with Senator McCain in that regard.”
Storin said Obama’s major accomplishments of change will be the result of this bipartisanship. “It’s going to be very difficult for him to fundamentally change how things are done,” he said. “But the tone will be somewhat better. To the extent that he can reign in the partisan impulses of his own party, there could definitely be a change in tone.”
These partisan impulses will most likely come from the Democratic Congressional leadership, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Storin said.
“Left to their own devices, Congress, particularly the House, would want to roll back the last eight years in eight weeks,” Storin said.
But Storin said Obama would to stand up to his own party.
“Judging by the way he ran his campaign and with his own sense of self-confidence, Obama is smarter than that,” he said. “He’s smart enough to know it’s a bad idea.”
Obama will be helped by the fact that many of the newly-elected members of Congress are indebted to him for their elections, Schmuhl and Storin said.
“Obama’s word should be stronger than anybody else’s,” Storin said.
In terms of specific policy initiatives, Storin said Obama will focus first on Iraq and healthcare reform, but could be distracted by the economic crisis.
“I suspect that he will keep his promise to some extent with regard to Iraq,” Storin said. “But Obama will not be willing to do something that leads to chaos. So I wouldn’t take a specific timeframe to the bank.”
Still, Obama’s promise to end the war “is kind of a non-negotiable part of what made him president,” Storin said. “He has to change the paradigm over there, including with regard to Afghanistan. He realizes that the idea that you can achieve a military victory with regard to Afghanistan is even more remote than in Iraq.”
Storin said health care will be a priority for the administration, but comprehensive reform may not be successful.
“There are going to be so many other problems and distractions, including problems facing Social Security and the economy that a lot of other things that he has talked about are going to take a back seat for a while,” Storin said.
Obama should mostly be able to pursue his own agenda in foreign affairs, according to Storin.
“He’s an internationalist, he’s a negotiator, he’s a collaborator,” he said. “There’s going to be enormous change in how we do business internationally.”
Obama has some skills that should prove to be particularly helpful in foreign affairs, Storin said. “He’s a good listener, he’s strong willed when he makes up his mind, and he’s surrounded by smart people,” he said. “Look for him to travel a lot and to talk to all sorts of people – friends and foes.”
At the end of the day, Obama’s promises of change will not come up empty, according to Schmuhl.
“Barack Obama is very different from the person who now occupies the White House, and in both policy and perception, we will see change,” he said.