I understand why Barack Obama was lingering over the shave ice in Hawaii. Once he hits the ground here in Washington, his famous aloha spirit is going to be tested even before he is inaugurated.
No one has come to Washington draped in loftier expectations—or facing a more challenging and ever-growing to-do list. Obama and his aides are determined to send a jolt of electricity through the city, but the realities get more immobilizing by the minute.
In Washington, Republicans don't want to be viewed as obstructionists, but don't want to be patsies, either. And globally, the drift of events is not necessarily in the president-elect's direction.
If Obama needed to lower expectations—and he does—here are some reasons:
* Economic Stimulus. Originally, Team Obama had hoped to have a $750 billion "jobs" bill on his desk by the close of business on Jan. 20. Forget it. Congress being Congress, and Republicans being Republicans, he's unlikely to see it before February at the earliest. How do I know? Well, for one, I've known Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, for 30 years. He just won reelection. He does not mind taking unpopular stands. He will have questions, some of them reasonable.
* Bailout Money. On paper, the new Obama administration will have $350 billion available to lend to banks, financial institutions and whomever it deems fit. But to get access to this second "tranche" of bailout money, approved last year, he needs another vote from Congress. Getting it will not be easy. In this case, opposition is more likely to come from Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, who are livid at the way the first $350 billion was used by giant banks to buy other banks, rather than lending it to consumers and homeowners.
* Senate Mess. Even in the best circumstances, managing the U.S. Senate is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. It may be worse this month, even though the Democrats have a large majority. Besides the Blagojevich mess in Illinois, there is the unsettled election in Minnesota and questions about the bona fides of Caroline Kennedy, who is on her way to taking Hillary Rodham Clinton's seat in New York. There are or will be appointed new members from Delaware and Colorado, too. The "world's most famous deliberative body" will seem more like a bus station.
* The Economy. The private consensus I hear, from leaders in various corporate and business sectors, sounds worse in many respects than the public one: unemployment rising well above 10 percent; major commercial real-estate deals essentially frozen or nonexistent for two years; another year of intense home-mortgage foreclosure pain. All of which means even more strain on government safety nets and budgets.
* Czars and Czars. I've heard grumbling that Obama is "czar crazy"—creating too many oversight jobs inside the White House, diminishing the role of departments and agencies. At the same time, the president-elect seems to want to raise the profile of some departments—especially the State Department, where Hillary Clinton already is establishing what amounts to a mini-administration of her own. These may sound like abstract issues, but believe me, in Washington, they are not. The revolt of the bureaucracy is already underway.
* Russia. Someone famously, and wrongly, wrote that history would end with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism. No one told Vladimir Putin, who becomes more dangerous as his oil-based economy weakens. He sent Russian warships to visit Cuba and cut gas supplies to Ukraine—and all but dared the new American president to challenge him in Eastern Europe.
* Pakistan. Obama has received a transition-team study focusing on the tribal territories, where Al Qaeda is dug in. The report, I am told, recommends that he step up American efforts in these "federally administered tribal areas" (FATAs). The gist of the report: that the situation is worsening there, but that solving it is key to peace in the region—not just in Pakistan but in the Persian Gulf and even the entire Middle East. But focusing on the FATAs has gotten harder as India and Pakistan turn their military attention toward their own conflict.
* Israel-Hamas-Hizbullah. It's hard to see how the war for Gaza is anything other than an unwelcome burden for a new U.S. president. But then, if you want to lower expectations, there is no better way to do it than to talk about the Palestinian issue.