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Obama: What the world expects . . .

He only has to rescue the global economy, solve the crisis in the Middle East and fix the environmen

When Hillary Clinton stunned Barack Obama by snatching the New Hampshire primary, Obama did not have to revise his speech as much as one might imagine. He had planned to meet even a victory that January night with warnings about the challenges ahead, coupled with resolutions to overcome them, to keep his supporters from floating into premature assumptions of winning the nomination after only two contests. So stern was Obama planning to be in victory, that the address, with only a few tweaks, would go on to become one of the best “live to fight another day” speeches ever given, soon enshrined as a song on YouTube.

One year later, on the verge of his inauguration, Obama faces expectations far greater than those he was prepared to ratchet back that foggy night in New Hampshire. This is partly his own doing - at some point, he stopped restraining hopes of easy triumph and started making victory seem assured by, for instance, going on a world tour and moving his convention speech into a football stadium. These theatrics helped voters visualise Barack Hussein Obama as their president, but they also raised expectations that he would be a great one. Raising the bar even higher is the turn the world has taken: this 47-year-old who arrived in Washington from the Illinois legislature four years ago is now asked to do no less than save the country from its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and, in his spare time, attend to a swath of fresh troubles from Gaza to Peshawar.

A case could be made, however, that the current emergency has not only further raised the expectations of Obama but also clarified them - for better and worse. For most of the campaign, the debate over Obama had centred not only on whether he was ready for the job, but on what he planned to do with it. His supporters swarmed to him partly out of a deep identification with his diagnosis - that America had gone off track, no matter what the passable economic data said, and that it would take a new kind of politics and public life, free of petty gamesmanship and selfish rationalisations, to restore balance. The sceptics missed this message, asking aloud: Yes, we can . . . what?

Now, the economic collapse has given Obama's exhortations an abundantly concrete goal; presidents, it is often said, need historic crises on their watch if they want to make history.

But the crisis also threatens to shift Obama's task away from some of the singular strengths and promise he exhibited in the campaign. So much of his appeal lay in his ability to articulate the ills of a country not yet in crisis mode, and to conjure the potential in a country reunited around common values. The crisis, however, has accomplished both: it has laid bare the problem and pulled the country together in its desire to fix it; even many in the "chorus of cynics" that Obama rallied against now wish him well. What is left to Obama is how to wield the will of the people that now lies, with so little effort, at his disposal.

He pledged bipartisanship, but only now will it become clear whether he envisioned simply a new era of cordial and intellectually honest debate, or whether he foresaw making substantive concessions. With his team proposing large business tax cuts to draw heavy Republican support to a stimulus package that could probably pass without it, some Democrats worry that Obama's talk of comity could come at the price of sound policy. And as he begins to gesture at the pension and health-care entitlement reform that his advisers think will be needed down the road to reduce a towering deficit, one recalls that, for all his campaign's emphasis on candour, he prepared voters for relatively little hardship, beyond some calls for buying smaller cars or watching less TV.

When the business cycle eventually turns, some credit will likely accrue to the new president. But one suspects that Obama will not consider his expectations met if he "merely" presides over the recovery from a crisis that did not arrive in full until the final weeks of a 20-month campaign - if he simply brings the country back to where it was when the bottom fell out. Seldom has a candidate's appeal lain so much in the promise of his campaign, rather than his past record. Obama will be judged not only on where the unemployment rate stands in 2012, but on whether he has, along the way, made progress on all the rest - on the planks that risk getting lost in the mix (universal health care, energy reform) and on the more abstract ailments in the body politic that prodded him to run in the first place. As big as today's crisis is, Obama may succeed on his own terms only if he makes solving the crisis part of something even bigger.

Alec MacGillis is a staff writer for the Washington Post

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...