Obama’s challenges continue to grow

President-elect Barack Obama, relatively young and inexperienced, is facing a rapidly growing list of monumental challenges as he prepares to take the reins of a nation in turmoil.

"I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead," Obama said after his historic election a little more than a month ago.

It was a sobering assessment at the time, but the country’s problems have only worsened since then. Now, Obama sounds dire, particularly as he talks about the economy: "We’re in an emergency."

He spoke during a week in which Congress killed a bailout of the failing auto industry, the government reported that jobless claims spiked to their highest levels in more than a quarter-century, and the Treasury Department said the nation registered a record federal budget deficit for November.

With woes foreign and domestic on more fronts than even Franklin Delano Roosevelt encountered when he took office in the midst of the Great Depression, Obama will be sworn in as the country’s 44th president in January.

His leadership will be tested immediately and in many ways. His performance from the outset could well set the tone for his presidency.

Not only is Obama saddled with lingering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he is inheriting from President George W. Bush, but he also must deal with:

  • a deepening recession in the U.S. and a spreading global economic crisis.
  • an automotive industry on the brink of collapse and soaring national debt.
  • increasing unemployment and its ripple effects.

the threat of terrorism amid a historic transfer of power.
At the same time, Obama may be drawn into an unfolding political scandal over Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s alleged efforts to trade the president-elect’s former Senate seat for personal gain. The ongoing federal investigation could ensnare some of his top advisers and taint the self-styled reformer who has tried to steer clear of notorious Chicago politics.

The president-elect says he’s "absolutely confident" his aides did not try to cut deals with Blagojevich, but at the very least, the scandal is a distraction for a leader facing the magnitude of problems on Obama’s plate.

Obama also has promised an ambitious foreign and domestic policy agenda that includes withdrawing most U.S. combat troops from Iraq, cleaning up government, overhauling the health care system, fighting global warming and developing alternative energy sources.

Some priorities may fall to the wayside or be done piecemeal. But, so far, he has signaled an intent to move forward on much if not all of those plans. The question is how quickly he can accomplish his goals, while simultaneously confronting the growing list of major problems.

"There’s a lot of ground giving under him. It’s a terrific challenge," said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics and a presidential historian.

"From one perspective, it’s as if he’s about to take over the captain’s job on a sinking ship. From the other perspective, he could be on a glide path to Mount Rushmore if he does a combination of morale building and energizing people while dealing with the economic distress by producing some constructive changes in the society and in the economy."

"The striking thing is he doesn’t seem scared," Greenstein added.

Indeed, Obama exudes confidence. He has surrounded himself with people in his incoming White House and Cabinet who have decades more experience than him in government, as well as foreign and domestic policy. They include big names such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Larry Summers, Tom Daschle and Robert Gates, longtime Washington insiders.

Comparatively, Obama has been on the national stage for a short time. He was introduced to the country during the Democratic convention in 2004 when he was in the Illinois Legislature and running for the U.S. Senate. Age 47, he will become president after serving just four years in the Senate

Most historians liken the situation facing Obama to that which confronted Roosevelt — but the comparison does not seem to do justice to the colossal challenges Obama is facing.

Roosevelt was already an established politician when he came into office at the depths of the Great Depression in a society with no safety net for the suffering. And the economy was much worse then than it is now. But he did not have two wars on his plate, nor a political scandal swirling nearby. And Roosevelt did not have a planet suffering from global warming and watching its natural resources dwindle.

He also let his four-month transition pass by keeping his distance from Republican Herbert Hoover. The two men had sharp policy differences over how to address the Great Depression, and Roosevelt stayed mum between his election and his inauguration.

Not Obama. He’s been extraordinarily active since his election.

With each new bit of bad economic news, he makes his views known — though he always is careful to defer to Bush when it’s decision time. As president-elect, however, Obama’s words now carry the power to move financial markets — perhaps even more so than those of Bush.

He has held regular news conferences to announce his Cabinet, and he gives the Democratic radio address on most weekends.

"Part of what he’s doing is paying lip service to the notion that there’s only one president while sucking up all the oxygen," Greenstein said.

Politically, with things so bad, Obama can claim any change for the better as a success. If the economic and security situation deteriorates further, he can rightly say he inherited a mess.

Obama won the election with more than 50 percent of the popular vote, and nearly three-fourths of people in an AP-GfK poll last week said they approved of how Obama has been handling the transition.

Judging by those numbers, he has plenty of political capital to spend as he tackles the country’s mounting problems.