The Next New Deal

Evansville, Indiana.Photo: Charles Ommanney/Reportage/Getty Images

On a bright, brisk, fat-pumpkin morning in mid-October—the kind of morning you would call glorious were the economy not cratering, the financial system not imploding, the Dow not tumbling at this very moment to its lowest depths in more than five years—Barack Obama is on the courthouse steps in Chillicothe, Ohio, calmly and coolly enlisting the past in the service of claiming the future. “The American story has never been about things coming easy,” Obama declares. “It’s been about rising to the moment when the moment is hard … about rejecting panicked division for purposeful unity; about seeing a mountaintop from the deepest valley. That’s why we remember that some of the most famous words ever spoken by an American came from a president who took office in a time of turmoil: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ ”

Obama had been toying with vague FDR allusions for the past three days, but now he’s decided to lay his cards on the table and seize the mantle explicitly. With the specter of a full-blown depression looming, the Age of Roosevelt—the campaign he ran in 1932, the challenges he faced upon assuming office, the “bold, persistent experimentation” he called for and the New Deal edifice he erected in response—is much on the minds of the nominee and his inner circle. “A lot of people around Barack are reading books about FDR’s first hundred days,” says a member of Obama’s kitchen cabinet. “It’s a sign of the shift that’s going on emotionally: from being on this improbable mission to believing, Hey, we’re going to win.

Until recently, talk like that would have brought forth invocations of unhatched chickens from countless Democrats. From the moment it became clear last spring that Obama would be the party’s standard-bearer, the excitement over what he represented has been twinned with a gnawing dread that his astonishing ride would somehow come to a crashing end a few yards short of the White House. That America would prove unready to elect a black president. That the Republicans would once again work their voodoo on the electorate. Or that Obama would choke in the clutch—that, far from being the next FDR or JFK, he would turn out to be the reincarnation of George McGovern or Mike Dukakis or John Kerry.

But as the outcome of the race has begun to seem more certain with each passing day—with Obama’s lead in the polls healthy and showing few signs of diminishing, with John McCain’s campaign listing aimlessly and lapsing into rank self-parody, with Sarah Palin devolving into a human punch line—Democrats are slowly, haltingly allowing themselves to believe that victory is truly within their grasp, and hence to contemplate what comes next. Transition. Inauguration. Those first hundred days. Maybe even, perchance, with augmented majorities for the party in both the House and Senate all but in the bag, the dawning of a spanking-new era of Democratic dominion.

It requires no prodigious feat of memory, of course, to see how this dream could come a cropper. Back in 1993, Bill Clinton surfed into Washington on a similar wave of enthusiasm and expectation. Democrats then, too, controlled both the upper and lower chambers on Capitol Hill. The party’s agenda was bold, ambitious, far-reaching. And then everything fell to pieces. In something like a heartbeat, Clinton’s reputation as a Third Way centrist was reduced to rubble. The degree of Democratic political malpractice was so severe that it enabled the GOP, in 1994, to snatch the reins of the House and Senate simultaneously for the first time in four decades.

This precedent would be unnerving enough for Democrats by itself, but the truth is that the circumstances Obama will confront are infinitely more daunting than those that Clinton faced at the outset of his administration. The recession that facilitated 42’s rise was shallow, and by the time he took office, it was already in the rearview mirror. And although the mounting deficit compelled Clinton to abandon much of the new spending he’d envisioned, the fiscal situation he inherited was nothing like the house of horrors awaiting Obama. Add to that the collapsing real-estate market, the credit crunch, a weak dollar, and rising unemployment, and Obama will find himself staring down the barrel of a downturn so steep and ugly that it could easily consume his whole first term. Oh, and did I forget to mention that the country is at war—in not one but two countries?

All too aware that, should he win, these cascading crises will leave Obama with no time to gain his sea legs and terrifyingly little margin for error, he and his people, to a degree few realize, have been planning their transition from campaigning to governing for months with characteristic care and rigor. Like so much about Obama’s historic bid for the presidency, the first few days and weeks and months will be like nothing we have seen before—and all of it grounded in the insight that, mind-boggling as it might sound, winning was the easy part. These are Democrats they’ll be dealing with, after all.

Salem, New Hampshire.Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum

Late in the afternoon on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, several dozen contemporaries of Obama’s from Harvard Law School more than twenty years ago gathered in a private room at the Denver Ritz-Carlton for a cocktail party–cum–reunion. The mood was warm and convivial but sober in every sense. There was no high-fiving, no backslapping, no whooping or hollering. The bartender reported that he’d never served so few drinks at an open bar; Pellegrino was the only beverage in short supply.

That Obama’s impending coronation as the Democratic nominee occasioned no boisterous celebration on the part of some of his oldest friends was a function of many factors—their Harvardian, type-A tightassedness not least among them. But for some, a deeper source of reserve was a stubborn sense of doubt: not over whether Obama was equipped to be president but whether he could do, would do, what it took to capture the prize. “I was scared,” says one Obama classmate and Democratic activist. “A friend of mine, a big supporter of his all along, wrote me an e-mail that said, ‘Oh, my God, he is McGovern!’ ”

But then came the fall of Lehman, the implosion of AIG, and the constriction of the global credit markets—and the race began to turn. By the end of last week, Obama had assumed a commanding lead in almost every significant national poll. The Pew Research Center put him ahead among likely voters by a whopping fourteen points; the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey put the margin at ten, and the new ABC/Washington Post tracking poll has it at eleven. And underneath those headline numbers were some vastly problematic trends for McCain. With Democrats leading Republicans in party identification by seven points nationally, and with Obama doing a bit better with members of his party than McCain is with members of his, the latter would need to beat the former by about twenty points among independents to win the popular vote. But Obama is trouncing McCain among this group—by eighteen points according to Pew and twelve according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

The picture presented by the battleground states is no less gruesome for McCain. Judging by the mash-up of polls at the new online bible for political-stats obsessives,, Obama is leading in every state that Kerry won in 2004. And he is either ahead or within the margin of error in ten states—yes, ten—carried by George W. Bush last time: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.

Until a few weeks ago, McCain’s electoral strategy had been staggeringly simple: compensate for Obama’s strength in several small Bush states (Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa) by taking Michigan. But in early October, McCain’s brain trust realized that the Wolverine State, despite the racially polarized climate around Detroit owing to the multi-count indictment of the city’s former African-American mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was a lost cause. So now the campaign has shifted its blue-state focus to Pennsylvania.

The logic behind the Pennsylvania push is less than clear but seems to revolve around an attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities that Obama demonstrated among white working-class voters in his Democratic-primary battle there against Hillary Clinton. To do so, the campaign appears to be reconsidering McCain’s previous refusal to pound on Obama for his erstwhile relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And at least one prominent Pennsylvania Democrat professes to believe that Obama has reason to be concerned. “I’m still a little nervous,” Governor Ed Rendell told CNN the other day, as he issued a plea for Obama and both Clintons to show their faces in the state again.

More than a few Republican strategists, however, regard the Pennsylvania gambit as desperate and doomed. “They’re smoking crack,” says consultant Alex Castellanos. “It’s one thing for a working-class Democrat to vote against Obama on culture in a Democratic primary. You’re still voting for a Democrat; you still get to be a Democrat. But to vote for McCain, you have to become a Republican. I don’t see it.” “There’s a reason we haven’t won Pennsylvania since 1988: It’s a Democratic state,” says another GOP guru. “Obama is ahead by double digits. And if McCain rolls out the Wright thing there, the national backlash will be huge, and moderate states like Florida will disappear as opportunities.”

I asked the second strategist if there was any way, absent an act of God or Osama bin Laden, he could envision Obama losing the election. “The cake is baked,” he replied. “McCain is getting outspent six to one in states he has to win, and Obama is ahead or close. We’re gonna lose Virginia, North Carolina is slipping away. And here’s what I’m scared about: We’re losing first-time voters by 50 points—50! What the McCain people need to focus on now is trying to cut the margin of defeat. I hate to say it, but at this point, that’s the best that we can hope for.”

Indianapolis, Indiana.Photo: Callie Shell/Aurora

For Obama, doing the converse—widening the margin, running up the score—is more than a matter of political pride. The scale of his victory will determine the size and scope of the mandate that he can legitimately claim. If Obama racks up the totals currently projected by FiveThirtyEight’s resident numbers guru, Nate Silver, his Election Night tally will be impressive indeed: 52.2 percent of the popular vote (making him the first Democrat to break 50 since Jimmy Carter) and 354 electoral votes (a modest landslide). But equally critical in terms of governing will be another metric: the length of Obama’s coattails when it comes to the House and Senate.

Nobody understands this better than Obama—and so he has been applying ample pressure on the relevant players. “Obama has said to me, ‘If you guys don’t pick up a significant number of seats, it will be far more difficult for me to accomplish the kind of change America needs,’ ” Chuck Schumer tells me. “And he’s right. If we don’t, he would probably have to limit his proposals, let alone what he could reasonably expect to pass.”

For the second election cycle in a row, Schumer is at the helm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Two years ago, he was widely credited for the party’s success in recapturing control of the upper chamber. Today, his eyes are firmly fixed on a grander prize: picking up the nine seats that Democrats would need to get them to 60, a filibusterproof majority.

On a recent Sunday, I drove out with Schumer to the annual bivalve festival in Oyster Bay, where I watched him both schmooze the crowd and chomp on an ear of corn with equally obscene gusto. When I asked him to rate his party’s prospects of reaching the magic number, Schumer cited—what else?—FiveThirtyEight: “They said there’s an over 50 percent chance that we pick up seven seats, 40 percent that we pick up eight, and 30 that we pick up nine, and that’s probably about accurate.”

“A lot of people around Barack are reading books about FDR’s first hundred days,” says a member of Obama’s kitchen cabinet.

Though 60 is Schumer’s holy grail, he contended that getting to 58 or 59 would be almost as good. “Every seat in the Senate makes a difference,” he said. “On an issue like taxes where the Republicans are all locked in together, like the Bush tax cuts, you might need 60. But on an issue where you can pick off one or two, like the Iraq war, you don’t. There are a large number, fifteen or twenty, of what I call traditional conservatives: John Warner, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Dick Lugar, Johnny Isakson, Bob Corker. I think they went along with the hard right for the past eight years grudgingly, because they felt the hard right had the upper hand. But if we get to 57, 58, 59, they’re going to smell the coffee. They’re going to be more pliable than before, more open to our arguments.”

On the House side, Rahm Emanuel radiates a similar brio about the Democrats’ outlook for November. Emanuel ran the party’s Congressional Campaign Committee for 2006, and although he’s graduated to chairman of the caucus, he remains neck-deep in data concerning competitive House contests. “North of 20 and less than 30,” is how Emanuel answers when I ask how many seats he expects his side to gain. “Yesterday I would have said 22, today I’m at 26. The way things are going, I need to keep opening up a bigger band.”

If Emanuel and Schumer are right in their estimations of what’s likely to play out on Election Day, the Democrats will enjoy commanding majorities in the next Congress. So commanding that the temptation will be nearly overwhelming in some quarters to declare 2008 a realigning election: the end of the Reagan-Bush era, the start of the Obama epoch.

It’s worth pointing out that the postulated Democratic numbers for 2009–11—57 to 59 seats in the Senate, 253 to 263 in the House—aren’t all that different from those that obtained in the doomstruck 1993–95 session. Yet Schumer argues that, for all of Clinton’s promise, no one seriously considered 1992 a “tectonic-plate-shifting election” like 1980 and 1932. “Even though Democrats controlled Congress and Clinton was in the White House, we were playing on the playing field created by Reagan,” he says. But now those plates have shifted again, thanks largely to the electorate’s revulsion at what went on from 2000 to 2006. “As Clinton pointed out at the convention, that was the first time in 50 years the Republican Party had full control of both houses of Congress and the White House. And when they got to do what they really wanted to do … whoa.”

Schumer is undoubtedly correct that 2008 is shaping up to be a case-closed repudiation of latter-day Republicanism—a point that few sane conservatives would bother to dispute. But whether the triumph of Obama and beefed-up Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will constitute a realignment is impossible to say at present. The reason is simple: What happens at the ballot box is just the first step toward building a stable, lasting majority. As Democratic Leadership Council president Bruce Reed puts it, “The battle for realignment starts the day after the election.”

Omaha, Nebraska.Photo: David Burnett/Contact Press Images

It starts, in other words, with the transition—the first test of Obama’s mettle.

On the day of the third presidential debate, while Obama was in New York preparing for his tangle with McCain, a conference was taking place in Washington at the Center for American Progress (CAP) with the title “Presidential Transitions: From Campaigning to Governing.” The attendees heard presentations from academics, former White House staffers, and Bush-Cheney transition director Clay Johnson III. They heard stories about good transitions and bad, about the dizzying 77-day stretch in which the president-elect and his people must assemble a Cabinet and White House staff, develop legislative and political agendas, field a gazillion white papers, and fend off (or lap up) the kind of toadying rarely seen this side of a monarchy. Which is to say it was a typical Beltway gabfest, except for one salient fact: Offstage and out of sight, the good people of CAP were quietly planning the actual transition for the putative Obama administration.

Leading that effort is John Podesta, CAP’s president and chief executive, whom Obama tapped in the last few months to head up his transition. That Podesta should find himself in this position is ironic, even mildly odd. A former White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton, he was a loyal supporter of his wife during the Democratic primaries; much of the work he is doing now he expected to be doing for her. Around him are a bevy of Clinton alums, now toiling on Obama’s behalf: Leon Panetta, Bob Rubin, Gene Sperling, Carol Browner. Odder still, the transition that Podesta is designing is explicitly modeled not on Clinton’s but on Ronald Reagan’s. Indeed, Clinton’s transition is said by some involved to be a kind of anti-model for the Obama endeavor.

Then again, on second thought, maybe it’s not so odd—the Clinton transition was famously, fantastically dysfunctional. His pledge to pick a Cabinet that “looks like America” yielded a process riven by identity politics, ravaged by interest-group pressure. Thoughts of reaching across the aisle—Condi Rice was considered for the position of U.N. ambassador—were quickly abandoned. The whole thing was haphazard, disorganized, painfully slow, and politically maladroit. (Zoë Baird, anyone?) There was no real plan for what to do on taking office, just a memo outlining the first two weeks, and even that was ignored. Gays in the military took center stage, along with the signing of a handful of executive orders related to abortion. “There was an overall appearance of chaos,” recalls an early Clinton official. “All of us on the team were at times witting, at times unwitting co-conspirators in the undoing of his centrist, New Democrat credentials.”

It should come as no surprise that No Drama Obama wants his transition to be nothing like that of Chaotic Clinton’s. Already his pre-transition is exhibiting the kind of order and discipline (and lack of leaks) that have been the hallmarks of his campaign. With the help of some 50 old Washington hands, Podesta and his people are drafting a book-length transition blueprint, with agency-by-agency policy agendas, including day-one, day-100, and year-one objectives, too. Résumés are already being collected. Daily conference calls and meetings occur. Of Obama’s pre-transition planning—and, in fact, of McCain’s as well—Clay Johnson has said, “The amount of work being done before the election, formal and informal, is the most ever.”

Obama advisers make no bones about why they see all this as essential: Given the unusually crisis-plagued environment into which Obama will be stepping, he will want to move quickly, especially when it comes to selecting his Cabinet. Almost certain to come first, perhaps within days, will be his economic and national-security teams. And with those choices, they say, he will want to send a message of centrism and bi-partisanship. It’s conceivable that Obama will ask Bob Gates to stay on as Defense secretary; Chuck Hagel, too, might find a place high in the administration. But although there has been chatter that Obama might also retain Hank Paulson at the Treasury, the inside betting is on a Larry Summers encore. “They’re gonna want somebody who knows the building, knows the economy, has been confirmed before and been advising them on economics,” says the former Clinton aide. “I’d be flabbergasted if they chose somebody else.”

Once the Cabinet is in place, Obama will turn to congressional relations, and here too the contrast with Clinton is likely to be pronounced. From the get-go, WJC and the Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate were at loggerheads. The old bulls regarded him as an outsider, an interloper, a president elected with just 43 percent of the vote—as someone to be pushed around. They informed him in no uncertain terms that they wouldn’t help him pass his promised package of political reforms. They pressured him (along with his wife) to put health-care reform ahead of welfare reform, a fateful blunder.

En route to New Orleans.Photo: David Burnett/Contact Press Images

But Obama has no inbuilt animosity toward the congressional leadership. Sure, he vowed to transform Washington, but he did not run against it. He is surrounded by people—Emanuel, Podesta, former Tom Daschle aide Pete Rouse, and Daschle himself, who stands a reasonable chance of being Obama’s White House chief of staff—steeped in the legislative culture and masters of the legislative arena.

Not that dealing with a pair of institutions led by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will be any kind of picnic. “They’re incredibly weak leaders running a Congress with 12 percent approval ratings,” one Democratic think-tank maven says. “They’re not people with much of a record of, you know, actually getting things done.” Making matters worse, Obama will be hounded constantly by the old-school liberal interest groups, with all their bottled-up desires and demands. The unions, the health-care groups, the teachers, and so on: Everyone will have their hand out.

Yet the very feebleness of Reid and Pelosi may work to Obama’s advantage; they are much more likely to see their fates as bound up with his than Tom Foley and George Mitchell ever did with Clinton’s. Obama’s race, in a funny way, may make him less vulnerable to mau-mauing by the left. And the unconventional way he ran for office, the whole bottom-up movement thing, may grant him a degree of independence unique in modern history. “Personally, I think the depth of the Obama realignment is being underestimated,” says the Republican media savant Stuart Stevens, who helped elect Bush twice. “They have basically invented their own party that is compatible with the Democratic Party but is bigger than the Democratic Party. Their e-mail list is more powerful than the DNC or RNC. In essence, Obama would be elected as an Independent with Democratic backing—like Bernie Sanders on steroids.”

Inside betting is for Larry Summers at Treasury. “They’re gonna w ant somebody who knows the building,” says an ex–Clinton aide.

At the same time, whereas Clinton had to deal with a strong Republican adversary in Bob Dole and an ascendant one in Newt Gingrich, Obama will be facing off against an opposition party demolished in number, ideologically inchoate, rudderless and basically leaderless in the House and the Senate. “The Republicans,” says the think-tank guy, “may very well be politically and intellectually decimated for ten years after this.”

Which brings us back to the Reagan precedent and why Podesta and his team are using it as the preferred exemplar for Obama. The collapse of institutional conservatism that is about to unfold—that is, self-evidently, already unfolding—creates an opportunity not unlike the one that Dutch faced in 1980 to fashion a functional, and not merely theoretical, alternative to New Deal liberalism. How Reagan and his adjutants, notably his budget director, David Stockman, did that was by crafting a detailed package of tax and budget cuts and presenting it almost immediately to the new Congress in February 1981. Thus was born the Reagan revolution, and the rest, as they say, is history. That Obama plans to do something similar is already abundantly clear—the question is just what his revolution might turn out to look like.

Emanuel doesn’t hesitate when I put the question to him. And his answer is one to which attention should be paid for reasons beyond the obvious. Emanuel is more than one of the shrewdest, savviest, toughest Democratic pols of his generation. He is a close friend and confidant of his party’s nominee and certain to be a pivotal player in putting meat on the bones of Obama’s campaign mantra of change, change, change. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, plays an identical role for Emanuel, whose congressional campaigns he has engineered and whose maneuvers in the House he has often guided from afar. Rarely does a day pass by in which the two men do not speak. The three-way mind-meld is nearly total.

“My view is that we gotta be the party of reform,” Emanuel begins when I reach him on his cell phone. “There are four reforms. There’s financial-regulatory reform, tax reform, health-care reform, and energy. Regulatory will kinda come down the chute fast. Tax reform will take a little longer, because it’s not until 2010 that Bush’s tax cuts expire. Energy, you can do some things immediately. And with health care, you’ve got the children’s health insurance as the first piece of a series of things you gotta do.”

Emanuel’s reform agenda is helpful because it’s clarifying—in terms of timing, in terms of priorities, and in terms of suggesting where Obama’s plans and the appetites (and political tolerances) of congressional Democrats intersect. In the early phases of the nomination contest, Obama was pilloried, and fairly, for a maddening vagueness on policy, for being long on inspiration but worryingly short on specificity. But over time, Obama has developed a litany of proposals laundry-listy enough to make Hillary Clinton proud—and pricey enough to have deficit hawks screeching at the moon. He’s pledged $60 billion in infrastructure spending, $80 billion for middle-class tax cuts, $150 billion for a green energy/jobs program, along with a raft of tax credits for college tuition, child care, clean cars, and, most recently, small businesses.

But as Obama’s plans have unspooled over the past year, the economy has gone from pre-recessionary to perhaps pre-depressionary, the financial system began its epic meltdown, and the bailout of the banking system has imposed a gargantuan, unforeseen cost on the federal coffers. What had been expected to be a $450 billion deficit next year is now going to clock in, according to the latest estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, at $750 billion, minimum. (The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget pegs it at $1 trillion.)

Deficit numbers like that, approaching 7.5 percent of GDP, are enough to put a scare even into someone as unflappable as Obama. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, he was asked what would be the hardest part of Bush’s legacy to undo. “The budget,” Obama answered without hesitation. “We are going to be in a massive hole … Digging ourselves out of the fiscal mess we’re in is going to be a big, big challenge, and it’s going to require some tough decisions that will not always be popular, particularly when there’s going to be a lot of pent-up energy among Democrats. If I win, every member of Congress on the Democratic side, and some on the Republican side, is going to have ideas about pressing needs and worthy programs. Trying to set some very hard, clear priorities is going to be tough.”

Already Obama is hinting strongly at what his priorities will be. Consistent with what Emanuel told me, Obama now informs Time’s Joe Klein that endeavoring to spark “a new energy economy [is] going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office.” At the same time, Obama will surely press immediately for his middle-class tax cut, which happens to be sound economics in recessionary times and also irresistible politically.

What isn’t likely to happen anytime soon is Obama’s version of near-universal health care. Even before the financial crisis hit, a number of senior Democratic lawmakers were quietly expressing doubts about trying to fast-track the issue. “I’m not sure we have a consensus for health care, even on our side,” one Democratic senator tells me. “Remember back in 1992, when Pat Moynihan told Clinton to do welfare before health care and Clinton didn’t listen? That’s a lesson Obama should pay heed to—health care is a quagmire.”

More problematic for Obama may be the need to abandon his tax hikes on the wealthy. The notion of raising taxes on anyone in the teeth of a precipitous downturn will meet with stiff resistance from many sides. Yet without the revenues provided by such measures, it’s difficult to fathom how Obama will pay for even a fraction of his proposals without pushing the deficit from the realm of the merely terrifying to the absolutely crushing.

Some Democrats will say—are already saying—damn the deficit, full speed ahead. They are talking about a new New Deal, about the revival of Keynesian pump-priming. On the other side, however, stand the fiscally conservative House “blue dogs,” without whose support Obama will find it nearly impossible to move his agenda through the lower chamber. His outreach to that group—including his embrace of pay-as-you-go rules for budgeting—has been ardent, and if he were to spurn them now, the political consequences could be dire.

Obama plainly sees this conflict coming, this potential replay of the Clinton wars between deficit hawks and public-investment liberals. He has moved adroitly to give himself maximal running room. “I was heartened to see that page-one profile the other day on the role of Paul Volcker in The Wall Street Journal,” says a former Clintonista. “Some of these left-right tensions are going to be mitigated by the fact that Obama has built himself such a loud cheering section among the fiscal-responsibility crowd.”

Some, but not all. If the economic crisis worsens in the way that so many in the financial sector are now certain that it will, Obama will be faced with choices much more wrenching than he now imagines—choices that are likely to pin him down squarely on an ideological spectrum that he has labored mightily to transcend.

In a way, that attempt has been the raison d’être of the whole project of Obamaism. And its success has been a source of fascination and frustration to those who have observed him for much of his adult life. From as far back as his days at Harvard, where I first ran across Obama, his bedrock political orientation—centrist? Liberal? Neoliberal? What?—has remained opaque. The evidence, much of it on display during this campaign, points in all directions. His Senate voting record: traditionally liberal. His temperament: technocratically pragmatic. His rhetoric: somehow centrist.

It’s possible that these timeworn labels will prove as unhelpful in defining Obama’s administration as they have been in limning his campaign. Maybe the real dichotomy that will matter will be between boldness and cautious moderation. His campaign has by turns been both: starkly audacious in conception—a political neophyte taking on the Clinton machine? C’mon, you must be kidding!—but cautious tactically and strategically in execution.

FDR, of course, ran a cautious campaign in 1932, as the historian Alan Brinkley reminded me the other day. Indeed, Brinkley noted that “Roosevelt’s was much more cautious and much more conservative than Obama’s. Obama has been fairly careful, not terribly controversial or aggressive or innovative; he’s played it safe on the whole, but not nearly so much as Roosevelt did. Roosevelt played it safe because he pretty much knew he was going to win unless he screwed up. I don’t think Obama has ever quite felt that way.”

But Roosevelt was compelled to abandon caution by the great trauma of his day; the Great Depression gave him little choice but to be bold. Perhaps the same will be true for Obama. The gathering shitstorms on the horizon will test him quickly and severely. How he handles them will either place him on the road to ruin or the path to greatness—any less dramatic a destination would seem, well, so very un-Obaman. And it will finally answer a question posed by McCain for reasons of his own, but that the rest of us, if we’re being honest, would admit to puzzling over, too: Who is Barack Obama?

Additional reporting by Michelle Dubert

The Next New Deal