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Well-funded liberal interest groups will compete to rush their pet causes to the top of this agenda, while conservative groups will use these issues to rebuild their battered bases. Both presidential candidates have promised to lance the boil of partisan demagoguery in Washington, but for many of these interest groups, comity is bad for business. The fracturing of the media into a thousand voices many of them strident will further complicate the new President's efforts to deliver on the promise of a more civil way of doing the nation's business.
Don't forget the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the rise of China, the bluster of boom-and-bust Russia, the murky threat of Iran and the accelerating decay of Pakistan. Between the economic crisis at home and the geopolitical cauldron abroad, the new President's agenda will be largely predetermined. He might wish he could shrug off this dismal inheritance and devote himself to the shiny projects cataloged on his campaign website but that's beyond his power.
Finally, there is the strongest, and perhaps the least predictable, force of all: public opinion. As the current President proved, a Chief Executive with two-thirds of the public behind him can steamroll almost any rival influence. In a single year when Bush's approval rating floated as high as the low 70s, he launched a war, reorganized the Federal Government and passed a vast expansion of Medicare. Forty percentage points later, he's the lamest duck since Harry S Truman. The public today is anxious, skeptical and dissatisfied. Record numbers say the country is on the wrong track. In this climate, the new President's honeymoon may be as fragile as a 3 a.m. Las Vegas wedding.
This is the real world the next President is about to enter. How he might respond to the winds of reality and what tools he'll have available to weather the storm differs greatly from one man to the other.
"Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain sometimes asks on the stump. If the election follows the polls of October and the U.S. awakens on Nov. 5 to an Obama presidency, he'll begin answering that question in the only way that counts: by his actions. Is he the pragmatic champion of the middle class whose calm and moderate tone carried him undefeated through three debates? Or is he the stealth lefty zestfully skewered by Sarah Palin at event after event?
There was a similar unveiling in 1992. Like Obama, Bill Clinton campaigned for the White House on a platform of middle-class tax cuts and a free-market-friendly approach to public policy. The government doesn't "spend" tax money in the New Democrats' lexicon. It "invests" in the future. And like Obama, Clinton saw another version of himself painted by the opposition: a pot-smoking, war-protesting, bureaucrat-loving, income-redistributing radical.
When the voters called for the "real" Clinton to take office, he stumbled. His transition team was disorganized. He abandoned his tax cuts and worried about the bond market instead. He pitched into a needless controversy over gays in the military. His crime-fighting proposals were drowned out by his difficulty in finding an Attorney General who had paid all her taxes. He antagonized the White House press corps and seemed unsure in his dealings with the Democrats who ran Congress. He took his eye off the ball overseas and let a police action in Somalia turn into a national embarrassment. The Republicans saw all this, hauled themselves up from the canvas and, led by Gingrich, pounded Clinton and the Democrats in 1994. Eventually, Clinton delivered on much that he promised: he put 100,000 cops on the street, the budget was balanced, "welfare as we know it" was ended, and the economy boomed. But his weak start left him damaged in ways that shaped his entire presidency.