(3 of 6)
Obama is eager to avoid those mistakes. Within weeks of capturing the nomination, he started planning for the possibility that he would govern. He set up a transition team last summer, led by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, one of the best-connected and least self-aggrandizing Democrats in Washington. Podesta's team is compiling a book of perhaps 50 chapters to use as a blueprint for a new Administration. All this activity opened Obama to criticism from McCain that he was prematurely "measuring the drapes" of the Oval Office. Instead of drapes, though, the Illinois Senator seemed to be thinking of Cervantes, who declared, "To be prepared is half the victory." Indeed, one of Obama's striking qualities is that success never takes him by surprise. He's like a golfer who makes a hole in one and tells his stunned partners, That's where I was aiming.
But while there is a place in Washington for 50-chapter briefing books, the more important text for Obama could fit on a note card: Clear priorities. Everyone in the capital has a plan for a new President. Unless he sets his own agenda, others will eagerly set it for him. Obama has a lot to choose from. Recently, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, no fan of his, compiled a catalog of promises and programs Obama has made during the campaign. Including documentary quotations, the list ran 85 pages. Obama recently told Time's Joe Klein that Job One is the unknowable task of patching and stabilizing the sinking economy, which makes sense because the power of this issue to shape the next presidency is absolute. The financial crisis has already changed Reagan Republicans into bank nationalizers almost overnight. Presidential-transition expert Paul Light calls this the most harrowing environment for a change of Administration since Lincoln took charge of a country split in two.
After that, his priority, Obama said, is passing an energy bill. Presidents have been talking about reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels for decades. McCain's embrace of alternative energy has given the issue a bipartisan flavor. And Obama believes that the quest for new engines and fuels for the future will serve as a "new driver" for robust economic growth. (It has happened before just ask Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.) But momentum alone won't make it happen. Beneath the surface consensus lies enormous controversy. The cap-and-trade system of charging factories and utilities for permits to burn fossil fuels would be a major intervention in the economy, and opponents will argue that it's too great a shock to apply to an already ailing patient.
On the other hand, in a period of ballooning deficits, an energy bill has the advantage of seeming to pay for itself. The sale of carbon-emission permits would raise billions of dollars, money Congress could then disperse in the form of grants for alternative-energy research, tax credits for greening homes and businesses, and loans to retool inefficient industries starting with Detroit's struggling automakers. Republicans doomed a Clinton-era attempt to do something similar by christening the plan a "carbon tax." For Obama to succeed, he would have to convince the public that this tax is truly an "investment."
Meanwhile, the ailing Atlas of congressional Democrats, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, has a different priority in mind for an Obama Administration. Even as he battles brain cancer, Kennedy has been trying to lay the groundwork for a breakthrough on universal health insurance. In his rousing, up-from-the-sickbed convention speech, Kennedy called health-care reform "the cause of my life," and many congressional Democrats share that zeal. Obama will have to decide whether, in the midst of a recession, Washington can take on two reforms of such historic proportions simultaneously. If, as the early betting predicts, he says no, Obama risks disappointing the liberal base including Hillary Clinton supporters who were late joining his bandwagon and remain perilously close to the exits.