This week Barack Obama became who he is going to be for the next four years. Amid a flurry of crucial decisions on the economy and foreign policy, his presidency is showing what may be its ultimate shape--out of necessity daring on domestic issues, more conventional and cautious on foreign policy.
Liberals who criticized his response to the financial crisis as too careful, like Paul Krugman, were finally impressed: "If he can get anything like the plan he announced on Thursday through Congress, he will set America on a fundamentally new course...(F)ears that Mr. Obama would sacrifice progressive priorities in his budget plans, and satisfy himself with fiddling around the edges of the tax system, have now been banished."
Conservatives also noted a difference. "A mysterious thing happened in that speech Tuesday night," Peggy Noonan writes. "By the end of it Barack Obama had become president," pointing to a moment "about four-fifths of the way through the speech. He was looking from the prompters to the congressmen and senators, and suddenly he was engaging on what seemed a deeper level. His voice took on inflection. He wasn't detached, as if he was wondering how he was doing. He seemed equal to the moment and then, in some new way, in command of it."
There is also a new edge to his determination to confront "the special interests and lobbyists...gearing up for a fight," and the days of wooing Republicans rather than defeating them in Congress, at least on domestic issues, seem to be winding down.
But foreign policy is something else. The pace of withdrawal from Iraq is slow enough to satisfy John McCain, and the decision to send more troops into Afghanistan while announcing a "soup to nuts" rethinking of our mission there has a cart-before-the-horse Bushlike feel to it. Shouldn’t the strategy precede the deployment?
Special envoy Richard Holbrooke is barely back from a whirlwind visit to the region, and the nature of Pakistan's role in fighting the Taliban is still unclear. For Obama, who puts so much emphasis on diplomacy, the military commitment seems premature.
As an incoming President with more on his plate than any in half a century, Barack Obama is shaping up fast and well enough to maintain good poll ratings from a jittery public, but the road looks long and uphill for the months ahead.