WASHINGTON — It felt, the new president told reporters the day after he took office, "like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me."
President Barack Obama's lament about the financial, international and domestic crises bearing down on him? Wrong time, wrong president.
The speaker was Harry S. Truman, telling White House reporters in 1945 about the overwhelming and lonesome responsibility confronting a new president. His remarks said it all.
He had succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt after FDR's death that year and immediately faced monumental decisions: how to end World War II; whether to order the atomic bombing of Japan, which would save American lives but kill tens of thousands of Japanese civilians; and how to build a peaceful world, including feeding the same German nation that had caused so much of the world's misery.
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Immense challenges have confronted Obama, too, early in his presidency.
The economic meltdown was tough enough by itself. But there's no time to catch his breath; too many other matters require his attention.
Guantanamo detainees. Health care. North Korea's nuclear program. Iran's nuclear program. The Israelis and the Palestinians.Video: Obama condemns N. Korea's nuclear test
"This fellow was dealt an incredibly difficult hand, both foreign and domestic," said Stephen P. Hess, senior follow at the Brookings Institution. "But maybe if you compare him to Lincoln or to FDR, it is not such a mountain to climb."
History shows that other presidents have taken on bigger challenges, according to Hess and other presidential scholars.
"On the scale of being confronted with truly major problems on taking office, I think I would have to put it in the top 10 percent," Hess said. "Lincoln took over on the verge of a civil war that was going to divide the country. Americans were slaughtering Americans. Roosevelt faced the worst depression the United States ever had."
Roosevelt did not have a big foreign policy problem early on, said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
Obama's economic test has been severe. Banks teetered, homes foreclosed, stocks plunged and millions lost their jobs. But for Roosevelt, the economy literally collapsed.
Kennedy and Cuba
Troubles at the outset of a presidency also roiled the incoming administration of a president often compared with Obama, John F. Kennedy.
Video: Bay of Pigs survivors recall battle Taking office in 1961, Kennedy inherited a bungled plan to train and support Cuban exiles to invade their homeland. The plan was aimed at inspiring Cubans to rise against Communist leader Fidel Castro, who was drawing on support from the Soviet Union.
The Bay of Pigs invasion and much of what followed, including an air attack of CIA planes from Nicaragua, ended as a colossal failure. The invasion was crushed. Kennedy was embarrassed.
But his administration did not cease economic and other operations against Cuba. This led up to the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.
"We were at the brink of nuclear war. I don't think we are at the brink of war with the North Koreans," said G. Calvin Mackenzie, professor of government at Colby College.
A brighter future?
So perhaps it's best for now to call Obama's trials daunting, but not overwhelming.
The financial markets and home starts are showing signs of life. North Korea is the foreign conundrum of the moment. But even Iran and Cuba, which seemed equally intransigent in recent years, have shown small signs they may be willing to come out of their diplomatic shells.
Is there daylight ahead for the new president?
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