James Werrell

President Obama shouldn't be too cautious

Barack Obama often describes himself as "the skinny guy with big ears." Now that he has been elected president of the United States, the world is wondering if his shoulders are broad enough to carry the enormous expectations of his supporters.

Obama will assume the presidency in the middle of the worst domestic economic crisis since the Great Depression. He will have to deal with two wars, burgeoning nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, far-flung terrorist threats and an increasingly pugnacious Russia. Meanwhile, the globe is warming.

The advice for Obama we hear from many is to go slow, seek broad consensus, govern from the middle. They suggest a creeping incrementalism, approaching these problems one step at a time and not demanding too much of the American people all at once.

But that may not be what the voters -- the millions who responded to his call for change -- elected him to do. They may demand something bolder, and Obama seems willing to deliver it.

Historians say we have had three epochal presidencies whose philosophies transformed the nation and dominated politics for decades: The first was the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800; the second, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860; and the third, the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

The modern conservative era, which began either with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 or of Ronald Reagan in 1980, might be a fourth.

And the election of Obama could be the fifth.

Whether that is so will not be determined entirely by the man, himself. As with each of the former presidents, the confluence of events, the national mood, the cooperation of Congress and luck also will help decide how history is written.

But Obama's election has the earmarks of a turning point, a juncture in history. It not only represents the embrace of Obama and his promise of a new approach to governing, but also the repudiation of the conservative era and its obsession with shrinking government.

The Bush administration, in its death spiral, has enacted some of the most far-reaching government intervention in the marketplace since the New Deal. Americans now seem primed for government to play a larger role, not a diminished one. We have long acknowledged that government -- and only government -- can meet certain needs, such as protecting our national security and managing our relations with other nations.

The new consensus that has evolved from this election is that only government -- representing our collective will and resources -- can rescue a sinking economy and tackle big problems such as limiting greenhouse gas emissions and making health care accessible to all Americans. We need government to help protect not only our security but also our well being.

Addressing those issues, as Obama has suggested, is likely to require a new type of politics, new alliances and new thinking. Maybe the habit of viewing every issue through either a conservative or liberal prism will become obsolete. For Obama to go back on his pledge to govern in a bipartisan way would be a mistake.

But the notion that he should constantly seek the middle ground, that he should not reach too high, that he should not press too hard, too fast for change could be equally disastrous. Crises present not only challenges but also opportunities, and opportunities can be fleeting.

Obama can't simply form a new coalition of special interests different from the ones the Bush administration catered to. That wouldn't work, and Obama is smart enough to realize it would be his undoing.

Instead, he will have to act with boldness, imagination, discipline and a willingness to embrace new ideas and different tactics to give Americans the reforms they demand. Obama no doubt knew from the start of his campaign the magnitude of the challenges he would face if he became president.

We must assume that he also knows how he plans to confront those challenges -- and that he relishes the opportunity to do so. With the support of the American people, the skinny guy might just succeed.