Rupert Cornwell: After the victory, what next?

President-elect Barack Obama has already started to put his team in place – just as well, given the scale of the challenges he will face come January
Click to follow
The Independent Online

History's turning points come in many guises. Some, like the implosion of the Soviet Union, unfold in slow motion. Some, like 11 September 2001, are split seconds of cataclysmic horror. Then there are those like last Tuesday evening, in the gizmo-laden TV studios where, the instant the polls closed on America's west coast, the networks announced that Barack Hussein Obama, half-Kenyan by birth and without even a full Senate term behind him, would be the next President of the United States.

Oddly, the endgame itself was almost routine, compared with the two-year roller coaster of a campaign that preceded it. The eve-of-vote polls were correct; the much-bruited "Bradley Effect" did not materialise, and on the night itself, the result was crystal clear at least an hour before the anchors called it at 11pm eastern time.

Never, surely, has the election of any national leader, in America or any other Western democratic country, whether on the right or the left, expected or unexpected, been laden with such symbolism. None has so completed one cycle of history and ushered in a new one. Not Bill Clinton, the kid from Hope in 1992; not Tony Blair at the moment of his "New Labour, New Britain" triumph five years later; not even the impossibly glamorous Jack Kennedy in 1960, as the torch passed to a younger generation of Americans. The arrival of Barack Obama is all these things and more.

Clinton, Blair and JFK were new departures. But their arrival at the summit of power cannot match this first black president of the US, who on 20 January will move into the most famous home in the land, built by slaves two centuries ago.

Think back to that icy morning in February 2007, which now feels like another age, as Obama announced his improbable candidacy on the steps of Illinois's old State House – the very building where in 1858 Abraham Lincoln, the state legislator who would become the President, the man who signed the Proclamation of Emancipation, warned that "a house divided against itself cannot stand".

In its widest sense, Obama's election signifies the house is whole again. As one US commentator has put it, the Civil War which began in 1861 truly ended only last week. But the similarities between the 16th and 44th Presidents extend beyond the fact that both hail from Illinois. Both won power despite the thinnest of national political résumés. Like Lincoln, Obama is a magnificent orator. And both came to power at a moment of supreme challenge. In Obama's case, a truer modern parallel than Kennedy, Blair or Clinton might be the Winston Churchill who said he had nothing to offer but "blood, toil, tears and sweat".

Of course he didn't say as much, in his victory speech before the tens of thousands jammed into Chicago's Grant Park. Nor could he have done. Even at less magical moments than last Tuesday, American political oratory is about optimism, boundless promise and dreams that come true. Nor does the US face an existential threat, as Britain did in 1940. The current danger is more insidious, but no less perilous in the long run: a colossal economic and financial crisis that puts at risk the prosperity Americans take as a birthright, at the very moment the country's relative power is already in decline.

That is the paradox of Barack Obama. No incoming president in recent times has aroused such hope. But none since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 has faced such mountainous difficulties. In each case the reason is the same: George W Bush.

The sheer promise of Obama places his predecessor's failure in even starker relief. Since 2001, the most unpopular president since polling began has brought a wrecking ball to almost every pillar of American power. The US military has been stretched to breaking point by the war in Iraq. The national economy is slumping, after the bursting of the biggest credit bubble in history, which assumed its final bloated proportions on Bush's watch.

His own Republican party has suffered crushing successive election defeats; the conservative politics he espoused have been revealed as bankrupt; and his country's good name is in tatters. The land of the free has turned into the nation of Abu Ghraib, waterboarding and Guantanamo Bay. All these disasters, in varying degrees, can be laid at George Bush's door. The surprise is not that a record 90 per cent of Americans think the US is heading in the wrong direction – but that 10 per cent still believe everything is more or less OK.

Indeed, why should anyone want the job of president at all? But Obama does. And in a sense, if not in name, the job has already begun, a full nine weeks before he takes the oath of office.

Transitions between American presidents, like the campaigns they wage to win elections, are always a drawn-out business. In Britain, the handover takes place within 24 hours at most. The handover is facilitated by permanent senior civil servants. Not so in the US. Transitions involve a new government, including new senior officials at Treasury, State and Pentagon, all of whom require security vetting – with a republic's version of a coronation thrown in for good measure.

The transition of 2008, however, is like no other. It is the first since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, and the first in 40 years to take place during a war. Since 9/11 the US has not suffered a terrorist attack on its soil. But although al-Qa'ida may be a shadow of its former self (where was its pre-election message to the American people?), no one knows whether it is plotting a strike in the US or on an American target abroad to exploit the perceived interregnum.

That is one reason why this time the transition will be less an interregnum than a co-presidency. Not officially, of course – Bush remains head of government, in charge of the US military and the nuclear attack codes, until noon on Tuesday 20 January. But Congress, foreign governments, lobbyists and everyone else who tries to influence US policy have already turned their entire attention to the future Obama administration.

The Bush administration, too, is taking extensive steps to ensure a smooth handover. As soon as tomorrow, Obama and his wife Michelle will visit the White House to inspect their home of the next four or eight years. Already, he is receiving daily intelligence briefings, while security vetting of his key transition staffers is being accelerated. History, alas, is no respecter of the US constitution. It does not take time-outs between presidents, least of all in an economic maelstrom.

Hence Obama's meeting on Friday with his top economic advisers, immediately followed by his first press conference as president-elect. It took place in mid-afternoon in Chicago, and started 20 minutes late. But it felt like a prime-time address from the Oval Office. Effortlessly, the free-speaking candidate had morphed into the ruler-in-waiting, weighing his every word. "The country only has one government and president at a time, and that government is the current administration," he declared. But it would be extraordinary if Obama were not involved in decisions on the $750bn financial bailout, a package to save the Detroit car-makers and new economic stimulus measures that will be taken in the coming days and weeks, but which will have an impact for years.

The line he must walk is a fine one. Too close an involvement, and the distance he set between his policies and those of Bush risks disappearing. If he takes a hands-off approach, the markets, which detest uncertainty, might become even more unstable. Wall Street's nerves are raw: its biggest ever election day bounce on 4 November was more than cancelled out on Wednesday and Thursday, with the biggest two-day fall in the market since October 1987.

On Friday, it dipped more than 1 per cent during the 15-minute news conference alone (before recovering the losses, and then some, by the close). Next weekend's G20 economic summit in Washington poses a similar dilemma. It is George Bush's show, and Obama is unlikely to attend. But his representatives will, and he himself is likely to meet some of the major participants.

Already, though, the process of forming a new administration is under way. In November 1992, Bill Clinton dithered for three weeks before he had a proper transition team in place; he paid a heavy price for the delay, with the chaotic early performance of his administration. Obama had his in place within 48 hours. On Thursday Rahm Emanuel – Illinois Congressman, close Obama friend and Washington insider – was named chief of staff to the future president. The key appointments of secretaries of state, defence and, above all, treasury are likely within days.

But that is only the start. A president-elect appoints more than 5,000 people to jobs in government. Of these, about 1,000 require congressional approval: cabinet secretaries and their deputies, intelligence chiefs, ambassadors and more. The process is laborious and delicate. Appointments are used to repay favours and nurture alliances. They are used to strike political balances and send political signals. Obama will be governing from day one. But even with a friendly, Democrat-controlled Senate, he will not have a fully empowered team in place for weeks, maybe months.

And then, finally, he's got to find the puppy he promised his daughters Sasha and Malia – "preferably a dog from the shelter", he smiled, "a mutt like me". In the meantime, his every phrase, every pause, every gesture is being analysed to death, as America looks for answers to two all-important questions. How will he govern? What sort of president will he be?

Obama will take power in the strongest political position of any incoming president since Ronald Reagan. He forged a new winning electoral coalition of the young, minorities and well-educated professionals. For the first time, a Democrat carried not just the cities but the hitherto reliably Republican suburbs. Their opponents have been pegged back to the south, the plains and the Rocky Mountain states.

John McCain may have lost the White House, in an election probably unwinnable by any Republican. But the most alarming defeat may have been that of Christopher Shays

in Connecticut's 4th district. The party now has not a single congressman in the six New England states, traditional home of "Rockefeller Republicans", fiscal conservatives but socially moderate. There could be no starker proof of how the party, in thrall to social conservatives, risks marginalisation in the new, more educated and more colour-blind America, where whites will be a minority within a generation.

As it is, Republicans are demoralised, rudderless and largely idea-less. Their mess is akin to that of the Tories after the 1997 Blair landslide. Not only is the new president sure of a honeymoon with voters (unlike Bill Clinton, who in 1993 was sidetracked by a row entirely of his own making, over gays in the military). Barring some utterly uncharacteristic blunder, Obama will have little trouble on Capitol Hill with Republicans, outnumbered in the House by about 255 to 180 – even though the party has escaped with enough Senate seats to sustain a filibuster. Where he may run into problems is with his fellow Democrats, tempted to run Congress as their fiefdom. They similarly overreached in the early stages of the Clinton administration, and suffered a midterm rout in 1994 as a result.

But Obama is likely to run a much tighter ship than Clinton ever did, at least if his campaign was anything to go by. What executive experience, sneered Sarah Palin to a rapturous Republican convention in September, could he have gained as a (hold your nose) community organiser in Chicago? In fact, by common consent this wet-behind-the-ears upstart organised the finest presidential campaign in memory, in the most gruelling year imaginable. He did it without backbiting, and with an ability to stay on message that eclipsed his opponents. In the primaries he overcame the mighty Clinton political machine. In the general election, he ran rings around one of the lions of the Senate. He didn't make a single serious mistake.

More clues to the future came from the speech in Grant Park. The jubilation may have stretched from lakeside Chicago to Cairo, from New York to Nairobi, but the coolest person on view was the one at the centre of it all. Far from being overwhelmed by a victory that in February 2007 seemed impossible, he looked as if he'd been expecting the moment all his life.

And there've been even clearer pointers from these first few days of Obama as president-elect. The appointment of Emanuel drew mixed reviews. The new kid on the block preaches bipartisanship, critics said – but if so, why name as his closest day-to-day aide a man with a reputation for taking no prisoners, least of all Republican prisoners, who in the words of even an admirer, "uses the F-word like a punctuation mark"?

John Podesta, who will head the transition operation, is another key figure, a former chief of staff at the Clinton White House. Both men have ties with the Clintons. Both know their way around Washington blindfolded. The message was clear. To make a presidency work, you have to have people who know the terrain (unlike Jimmy Carter, for instance, who surrounded himself with a Georgia mafia, and alienated senior Democrats).

Obama isn't making that mistake. Podesta is a bridge to the Clintons; Emanuel is hard-driving and passionate. But he is a pragmatist, not an ideological leftist. He is fire to Obama's ice – and thus, maybe, the perfect balance to a president who on occasion can seem too detached and too cool (in every sense of the word) to be true.

The same care will be evident in the main cabinet appointments. The guessing game is intense, and the first announcements may come in the next week or two – "I will move with deliberate haste," Obama told reporters, "and I want to emphasise the word 'deliberate' as well as 'haste'." Possible treasury secretaries include Larry Summers, who held the job under Clinton, the former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, and Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Fed and a central figure in this year's Wall Street rescue initiatives.

John Kerry, the unsuccessful 2004 Democratic nominee, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former senator Sam Nunn are on most lists for the next secretary of state. Almost certainly, Obama will name a Republican to one of the top national security posts. One possibility is that he will persuade the highly praised Robert Gates to stay on at defence; if not, then Chuck Hagel, the outgoing senator from Nebraska, might be given either state or the Pentagon. Either James Steinberg or Greg Craig, who both served under Clinton, is tipped to become national security adviser. Intriguingly, at least one Kennedy may get back into the mix, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, daughter of the slain president, mentioned as a future US ambassador to the United Nations.

As the speculation swirls, only one thing is certain. Obama will do what he wants, in his own time. That much was clear from the Friday afternoon press conference, an extraordinarily self-assured performance by a 47-year-old first-term Senator, to which only one adjective applied: presidential.

Unlike Clinton 16 years ago, Obama will hit the ground running. The world is a treacherous place, much of it less inclined to do as the US says. Potential flashpoints abound: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia to name but five. Everything Obama has said so far indicates he will move cautiously. But unlike the outgoing administration, whose dogmatic self-certainty and self-righteousness have been its downfall, he will be open to competing ideas, ready to listen to people with different points of view.

But the overwhelming task of President Barack Obama in his first 100 days will be the economy. On Friday, indeed, there was a touch of the Churchillian in his language – not surprisingly, given that the government had just announced the loss of 240,000 jobs in October, and Detroit's big three had reported third-quarter figures confirming that, without government aid, they may collapse by Christmas.

Every incoming president urges bipartisanship: remember George Bush's promise to be "a uniter, not a divider" after his victory in 2000. But in Obama's case, there are grounds to believe him. Unity was the theme of the speech that made him famous, to the Democratic convention four years ago, how there was not a red America and a blue America, just "one United States of America".

For another, Americans are fed up with a squabbling Congress, and demand bipartisanship. Third, and most important, in this dire hour, bipartisanship is needed. If tough measures are required, even Obama may need Republican cover. Again and again, the president-elect has said he wants things to work differently in Washington. If even he can't bring that change about, the country will be in worse shape than it is now.

The crisis poses "the greatest economic challenge of a lifetime", he warned, and some "difficult" choices lie ahead. The immediate priority is a new stimulus package, probably the $60bn measures before the outgoing Congress, which could be approved before Christmas.

The ingredients of an Obama stimulus package in early 2009 are clear. He will – he must – deliver on his promise to cut taxes for 95 per cent of taxpayers. Indeed, aides now hint the very rich as well may be spared once-threatened increases. A start will be made on his plan for $150bn of "green" spending on renewable energy, greater fuel efficiency and so on over the next decade. Almost certainly there will be a New Deal-style public works programme to create jobs and pump money into the economy that will actually be spent. The overriding goal is clear – "to prevent the biggest financial crisis in possibly the last century from turning into the next Great Depression", says Austan Goolsbee, economist at the University of Chicago.

Such is the colossal challenge facing this untried leader. But the initial omens are good. Candidate Obama is turning into President Obama before America's eyes. The "bubble" is snapping shut around him. But already, amazingly, it seems to suit him to a T.

Did you cry?

'It was deeply moving and affecting, mostly because of its symbolic importance. I showed manly restraint, but I'm absolutely delighted'

Hanif Kureishi

'This is someone who is incredibly calm and cool and assured, and I think in leadership that is extremely important'

David Cameron

'Watching Jesse Jackson's tears was a lump-in-the-throat moment. And it was just bloody nice to see democracy triumph over cynicism'

Nick Clegg

'I can't think of a more emotional piece of good news that I've heard in my life. Yes, of course I cried. Even biographers can cry'

Anthony Seldon

'It was emotional. I've been crying for the past four days. I'd had anxiety dreams because I was consumed by the terror of it not happening'

Oona King

'I'm a bit of a softie, and his victory speech made me cry. As half an American, it's great to have someone in who will repair the damage

Clive Stafford-Smith

'When he made his speech, I started crying. My daughter said to me: "Mummy, that family looks just like us. We can do that." And I said yes, we can'


'I was absolutely thrilled. Unlike most of the British commentators on the BBC, I don't share their scepticism'

Vanessa Redgrave

'It was great to see him get in, and I had a big lump in my throat and my eyes were watering'

Rose Gentle, military families against the war

'When I got up in the morning, I turned on the radio and heard his speech, which was absolutely magnificent.

I felt enormous relief'

Baroness Warnock

'I missed the coverage but I know who won. It was the first time I can remember in my life that I was proud to be an American'

Ruby Wax

'I didn't believe it. Even now it's amazing there's a black man in the White House and he didn't break in'

Shazia Mirza, comedian

To have your say on this or any other issue visit