Writing in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks lightly mocked the phenomenon as "O-phoria," the wall-to-wall coverage of Barack Obama's election—the insta-books, the quickie documentaries and, yes, the magazine covers. But it is hard to overstate the profound impact this election has had on the country. We in the media are, in some ways, giving voice to a collective expression of pride, a kind of national exclamation point, as if to say, "This really happened." The election of Obama hardly represents an eradication of racial prejudice; rather, it is an important milestone along a tortured road—an achievement in which all Americans, no matter whom they voted for, can take pride. But it is not a static event. The presence of an African-American family in the White House will force (allow?) all of us, no matter our skin color or ethnic background, to examine our biases and expectations.
That is why we chose to explore the meaning of Michelle Obama this week. All First Ladies face intense scrutiny. We hold them out as arbiters of our values and styles. Michelle is about to become the most visible African-American woman in the world. With this exposure, as Allison Samuels observes in her cover essay, Michelle has a real opportunity to alter the world's image of black women—and to knock down some ugly stereotypes. To succeed, Allison argues, Michelle will have to "engage in a delicate tap dance," to maintain the trust of the broad American public while staying true to her authentic self. It won't be easy. But with the combination of grace, strength and political skill she demonstrated during a grueling election campaign, she's off to a good start.
The burdens of the presidency are great during periods of national crisis. At these times we also ask more of our First Ladies. At the height of the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt was a force in her own right, showing empathy for suffering Americans and throwing herself into recovery projects. She visited coal mines and opened the doors of the White House to impoverished veterans. In 1933 she helped build the Civilian Conservation Corps, the country's first national-service program. Michelle Obama, who has already said one of her priorities will be national service and who plans to work with veterans' families, will likely turn to Mrs. Roosevelt for inspiration. We already know that her husband has been studying FDR's first months in office, when he laid the foundation for America's economic revival. In fact, Obama has turned to Jonathan Alter's book "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope." What has the president-elect learned? In the magazine this week, Jonathan writes that Obama is following a particularly crafty aspect of the Roosevelt playbook: staying on the sidelines so as not to be saddled with the incumbent's economic crisis.
The danger for Obama, as Michael Hirsh and Daniel Gross report, is that at a time when markets are rattled and fear is pervasive, economic policy is dangerously adrift. And with President Bush in full lame-duck mode and Obama keeping his own counsel, no one has seemed willing to fill the growing leadership vacuum. This week, according to reports, Obama will finally start to roll out his economic team. Fareed Zakaria argues that in the long run, the economic appointment that will matter the most is not Treasury secretary or any other cabinet post. It will be Obama's ambassador to China—or whomever he designates to manage our relationship with that country. Most economists believe the United States will have to spend its way out of this recession with a massive stimulus package; that means driving up the deficit to somewhere between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. To be able to run up these deficits, we'll need someone to buy our debt. And only China has enough cash to do so. Good luck, Mr. President-elect.