I've covered a lot of election night victory speeches, but I've never seen one as celebratory and at the same time as somber as Barack Obama's. I've also never seen one that amounted to the first speech of a new administration, nearly three months before it officially begins.
The reflective mood was in part personal, I am told: the president-elect, a friend said, was thinking of his parents and his grandparents, including the grandmother he described as the "cornerstone" of his youth and who died on Monday after a long illness.
The other reason for the mood, however, was job-related. He faces enormous challenges, global and local, grand and trivial. Here are a few:
The Fizz of " Making History " : The world is right to celebrate a social achievement of huge proportions: after the stain of slavery in the United States and its aftermath, the country finally elected an African-American to the presidency. In the never-ending argument over personhood in America—who is and isn't one—we have finally accepted the idea that humanity has nothing to do with skin color. Suddenly, the notion that we ever thought otherwise looks ridiculous, and Obama and his campaign can rightfully be proud of their role in finally banishing the old ghosts. But you can't run an administration on the power of the emotion that got you there. Soon enough—I'd give it until spring—the novelty and the sociological self-congratulation will wear off, and we will be back to the dreary, realities of living and governing.
The Press Will Bite: Critics are right to be skeptical, but I know that there is an immutable physics to media coverage—what goes up eventually comes down. Ask George W. Bush. Did he get more leeway than he deserved in the early going after 9/11? For sure. I know because I was part of the phenomenon. But things even out eventually. Bush has been savaged since 2005 (deservedly in many ways), and will leave office in a hail of mainstream media contempt. Right now Obama is The One. Baby-boomer types exorcise the demons of the '60s by praising him; Gen X and Gen Y types love him for his youth (he isn't quite as young as he seems to be, by the way) and his cool, lanky multiculturalism. A lot of this is going to burn off like liqueur on a flambé. Real lefties will discover, if they don't already know, that Obama is a more cautious and establishment-oriented figure than they thought or hoped; the African-American community will find out that he doesn't navigate solely by their star; the millions of members of the Net-based community Obama's campaign created will want him to be more of a reformer than may be possible. The press will cover all of this with relish, eventually.
Insider Trading: Obama's transition team is full of Washington hands, including, if not especially, Clinton-era folks. The trick for Obama will be to hire the best and the not-burned-out among them, extracting their experience and wisdom without getting bogged down by their ties to money and conventional thinking. Obama and his team will pursue their plan to bar federal lobbyists from jobs, but if exceptions are made—and it's a good guess that they will be—they will be news.
Get Thee to the Pentagon: Obama will need to avoid the mistake Bill Clinton made in 1992, which was to not really delve into, and try to win over, the culture of the military. Obama has some good ambassadors to help him—from Colin Powell to Chuck Hagel—and he doesn't have the draft-dodger baggage Clinton had. But Obama has to get at this task quickly, especially since he may find a surprisingly receptive audience. Given his fastidious devotion to planning and his grace under pressure, I have a sense that he will feel at home in the E Ring of the Pentagon.
Jesse III: Obama has to decide what to do and say about his Senate seat in Illinois. It's up to the Democratic governor to make the pick, in theory; in fact, it's up to Obama and the Daley family. Jesse Jackson III has paid his dues on the South Side of Chicago, and his father was seen in crowd shots election night with tears streaming down his face at the sight of Obama on the stage. But the Jacksons aren't everyone's favorite political family, and there are others in the state who want the appointment. No matter how big Obama gets, all politics is still local, especially in his hometown of Chicago.