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After Landmark Victory, Challenges Begin for Obama

November 5, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama rode to victory on a platform of change and unity. Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks mull the challenges ahead for the Obama administration and reflect on his victory speech.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight on the election, we gave a night-after assignment to our — we gave a night-after assignment to our sterling analysts, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. We asked each of them to select, for special attention, a few words from Barack Obama’s speech in Grant Park last night.

First, here’s your selection, David.

BARACK OBAMA, President-elect of the United States: I know you didn’t do this just to win an election, and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime: two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.

Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us.

There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor’s bills, or save enough for their child’s college education.

There’s new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build, and threats to meet, alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you: We as a people will get there.

A 'long road ahead'

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
If [Obama] wants to build a movement, I think he's got to build it slowly and persuade people to trust him step by step.

JIM LEHRER: David, why did you select that?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Because it presents a sense of challenge he -- or a decision he really faces right now.

You've got all this whole range of problems. How quickly do you tackle it? How quickly do you come out of the box? And he says there, in the middle, "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep," suggesting a degree of patience.

And there's a degree -- there's a debate now in the Democratic Party and in the Obama circles, is it 1933 or is it 1993? In other words, is it 1933? Huge problems, we just have to come out of the box with a full-bore agenda, health care, energy, big programs, just -- we've got this moment. Let's do it all as quickly as we can.

Or is it 1993, when Clinton took office, where you have a country a little dubious about big government programs, about a new Democratic Party, and you try to do it step by step. You do SCHIP. You do Earned Income Tax Credit. You do a small tax cut. You do a series of things to build.

And that's really the central debate. And I'm struck by how quickly they've become wonky. You know, the big historic moment was yesterday; a lot of Democrats that I spoke to today, they're talking policy. How do we enact this thing? Do we do it fast or do we do it steadily?

JIM LEHRER: And what clue did you get from Barack Obama's words as to how he's going to do this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I was struck by that sentence, "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep."

And I think, if you heard what Andy Kohut was saying, that there's been no ideological shift. If he wants to build a movement, I think he's got to build it slowly and persuade people to trust him step by step.

And so I was struck by that sentence, which seems to counsel patience.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, not an ideologically driven political movement necessarily?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think -- you know, he obviously wants to create a movement, but he wants to -- how do you do it? The country is not there yet, I think.

DAVID BROOKS: And so I think, if you're thinking in his shoes, you say, "You've got to build. You've got to show people. We're going to give you real practical results right away, but we're not going to give you the big health care plan right away. We may not do the entire energy plan right away, but we're going to build up to -- we're going to show you something practical right away, but we're going to build up to those things."

'Lone sheriff' or 'wagon train'?

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There are two competing narratives in American lore. There's the sheriff of high noon standing all by himself [...] or there's the wagon train, going across the prairie[...] and along that wagon train, the strong protect the weak.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Now, Mark, you chose -- here are the words that you chose from the speech.

BARACK OBAMA: So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in, and work harder, and look after not only ourselves, but each other.

Let us remember that, if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers. In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people.

Those are values that we all share. And while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, you're on.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it's fair to say, Jim, that over the past 30 years, under both parties, there's been a move to remove much of the security structure of our country, whether it's in the private corporations, provided strong unions, providing health care, guaranteeing health care to their employees from corporations, whether, in fact, it's pension plans, where there's a defined benefit versus a defined contribution from the employer, that you're on your own to do this.

In fact, it became somewhat of a conservative laugh line, "Remember, we're all in this alone."

And I think, when Obama said in this, which is quite the opposite. I mean, there are two competing narratives in American lore. There's the sheriff of high noon standing all by himself, taking on the raid forces, or there's the wagon train, going across the prairie, facing all sorts of threats, and along that wagon train, the strong protect the weak, we don't leave the old behind, that there is an obligation of each part of it to contribute to the whole.

And that's an echo and a theme that I have not heard in American politics in recent years, where the celebration of individualism and the individual spirit has been celebrated.

And it comes back -- it harkens back, quite frankly, to a president that David mentioned, Franklin Roosevelt, who said, "Remember, the measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, but whether we provide enough to those who have too little."

And I think that there were echoes of that in his speech last night and saying that all of us have an obligation not simply to work, but to contribute to that common wheel, to each other, to look out for each other. And that, to me, was cheering.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Ideological? Was it ideology there?

MARK SHIELDS: It's a value.

JIM LEHRER: Value.

MARK SHIELDS: It's a value.

JIM LEHRER: A political value or more than a political value?

MARK SHIELDS: It's a moral value. It's a social value. And I think it has implications. I think, if that becomes the standard by which you measure your policies, then, you know, if that becomes the criteria, then your policies are going to take a certain form.

Hopes and expectations

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
I think it would behoove both parties to move in a more communitarian direction to recognize that we're all connected in a deep and profound way.

JIM LEHRER: Did you hear the same message from those words, David, that Mark did?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, there has been a move I think in public philosophy -- in Britain, there was an essay called, "On Fraternity." In this country, a fellow named Michael Tomasky, a liberal writer, wrote a piece on the need to emphasize this theme, "We're all in this together."

And I do think that, at the end of the Cold War, when it was capitalism versus socialism or communism, there was a more individualistic Reagan-Thatcher vision against a collectivist vision.

And Margaret Thatcher famously, though unfairly, said, "There's no such thing as society." It's not what she meant, but it was taken as this radical individualist statement.

And I think it would behoove both parties to move in a more communitarian direction to recognize that we're all connected in a deep and profound way.

To be fair, this was George W. Bush's idea with compassionate conservatism. It was explicitly a rebuke of Newt Gingrich and what seemed like a more radically individualistic version, and Bush was trying to articulate Catholic social teaching, which was much more communitarian.

But putting that into practice and then figuring out where government fits into all that, and whether -- and the British Conservative Party, their main theme is, "We're for society; they, Labor, are for the state." And that's the real difference.

And so Obama and the Republicans will have to grapple with that distinction.

JIM LEHRER: What are your expectations, Mark, after you heard -- after all of us, the three of us in particular, have been talking about this now for two years, and here we now have this man, who just gave the country these words, and the public has now given him this incredible job, what are your expectations?

MARK SHIELDS: I think I have more hope than expectation. Hope. I'm not sure -- I'm not sure that I have specific expectations. I think...

JIM LEHRER: You're like some of the folks who we talked to.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think he's a man of enormous, extraordinary ability, I think of profound intellect, and of a wonderful temperament. I'm not sure, as anybody comes to that office, whether he comes with the profound humility that's required and that singleness of purpose.

David's right. I mean, everything is interesting to a president. He's got to decide in a very short order what's important.

Upcoming practical decisions

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Anybody who's ever been in the White House will tell you: You've got six months. You better decide what you want to get done in those six months.

JIM LEHRER: What about David's point, that David pulled from the words that he chose, which was, "Go slow, maybe one step," and not necessarily -- I'm paraphrasing -- but it's a steep climb?

MARK SHIELDS: That cautionary note is fine, but any president has a very short window. And anybody who's ever been in the White House will tell you: You've got six months. You better decide what you want to get done in those six months.

I think there's a honeymoon. I think there's a sense of goodwill in the country. There's a sense of goodwill in the world. A sense of goodwill in the world that George Bush had after 9/11 and the country had after 9/11... that was squandered, quite honestly, in Iraq and the United States' attitude to other countries, which has been repurchased in his victory. And I think he has to seize that. It won't be there 18 months from now after congressional back-and-forth and administration mishaps.

JIM LEHRER: See it the same way, hope, expectations, and the close -- this window...

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think that's necessarily true. I think a lot of 100 first days have not been that successful. And you could go on, as Reagan did, frankly, throughout his term and passed things.

You know, what strikes me about Obama and what struck me last night, though, really wasn't in the speech, though maybe reading his body language, is, if you're a normal person, you're just sick of the campaign. You are sick of campaigning. You want to get onto governing.

And I really got that sense in some of the things his aides have told the press, they really want to start governing. And he's been thinking about that already for weeks, and they've been involved in the transition for weeks.

And that brings you down to very practical decisions. And all the rapture is fine, but you've got the practical decisions.

I mean, one of the crucial ones is, what do you do first, energy or health care? These are two big problems which he has talked about. Do you do energy because it will create jobs? Or do you do health care because it goes more at the working-class voters you want to help?

Which is the bigger political mess? Which will be easier and set up the other? These are practical and very tough decisions.

JIM LEHRER: And that's only one of many.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Only one of many. Mark, David, thank you for all you do for us.