Given the excitement in Washington this week, one would think that with inauguration of Barack Obama— and the departure of George W. Bush— the economy is about to spring back to life, the troops are all on their way home from Iraq, there will be health care coverage for all and, to quote a certain Obama foe turned Obama Secretary of State, “celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”
But as Mr. Obama takes the oath of office, there is evidence that, as enthusiastic as the public is about the change in power, there are no expectations of quick fixes. The cascade of grim economic news, combined with the calculatedly sober tone Mr. Obama has adopted — most recently in his no-applause-line speech to thousands of supporters at the concert on the Mall on Sunday — has provided something of a cushion for Mr. Obama.
“People are going to give Obama more time than they would any other new president because they know he is dealing with unprecedented challenges,” said Mark McKinnon, a consultant who worked for a time for Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent in the presidential election. “The economic crisis President-elect Obama faces may in some ways help him — it is taking some of the helium out of what would otherwise be stratospheric expectations.”
Still, if it is now clear that Mr. Obama has some time, the next question is, how much? Just how much patience does the country have for turning the ship of state around, no matter how much it likes its new president?
Mr. Obama’s advisers, who have been nothing if not diligent about pushing the idea that none of this is going to happen quickly, tend to avoid allowing themselves to be nailed down on any specific timetable, not surprisingly. “I just don’t know,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, said in an interview. “I think that’s hard to judge. I think right now people are inclined to give us some time. By time I mean more than months. People understand that it’s going to take years.”
Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s designated chief of staff, responded with a terse e-mail message when asked how long he thought Mr. Obama had. “Will not put time on it,” he wrote.
“I think based on what I see they know these are big problems and cannot be turned around quickly,” he wrote. “Public quite pragmatic.”
A Times/CBS News Poll, conducted last week, offered at least some guidance for the Obama Expectations Clock. Most respondents said they thought it would take Mr. Obama two years or more to deliver on campaign promises to improve the economy, expand health care coverage and end the war in Iraq. One of the more intriguing questions as the nation approaches this transfer of power is this: At what point, if ever, does Mr. Bush lose ownership of this recession and it becomes an Obama recession? Most respondents think the recession will last two years or longer.
David Plouffe, who was Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, argued that there were some ways in which Mr. Obama can earn patience from the American public, and that much of it has to do with tone. “People expect a change in priorities,” he said. “People expect a change in intensity. But they know it’s going to take a long while for things to stabilize and turn around.”
In truth, though, according to aides to Mr. Obama and outside analysts, the amount of time he has to deliver on promises and deal with problems varies with the problem and the promise. For obvious reasons, he probably has a good deal of breathing room on the economy. That is also true with health care, given the long and tortured history of attempts to change the system.
But given the crispness and certitude of the campaign promise Mr. Obama made to bring all combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months, it seems fair to say that the public at large (and his Democratic base in particular) will not be quite as tolerant of delays on that front. The fact that Mr. Obama and his aides have not done anything to really walk back that promise, as opposed to some others, suggest that he understands that.
Mr. Obama may also find it difficult to delay for too long closing the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. He has walked a careful line on this issue since the election, raising all the complications in closing it while at the same time making clear that it will be closed eventually.
And Mr. Obama’s ability to slow-walk some campaign promises will also be affected by how well he maintains his standing with the American public and continues to project an air of command and competence. With a series of missteps upon assuming the presidency in 1993, Bill Clinton was quick to squander what political capital he had, as became clear with his party’s disastrous showing in the midterm elections of 1994. So far, Mr. Obama has managed to remain unscathed by any missteps he has made, but his ability to ask for the American public’s patience depends in no small part on the public’s confidence in his competence and motives.
Mr. Axelrod said he thought that Mr. Obama and the country were in tune with one another on the problems he faces and what it will take to turn things around.
“What’s remarkable about the polls is that people are at once optimistic and realistic,” he said. “They have high hopes for his presidency, and that he can help lead us out of the morass we are in — and they understand how deep the morass is. And that’s a good position to be in.”
Still, if this past few years have proved anything, it is that things move much more quickly in politics than they ever have before; public opinions shift, events change, perceptions change. Even as Mr. McKinnon, the media adviser, argued that Mr. Obama enjoyed a lot more running room than other presidents, his estimate of when the check might come due was probably one that Mr. Axelrod would not like to hear.
“I think Obama can count on a very long honeymoon,” said Mr. McKinnon, who also advised President Bush on media strategy. “I think he’s got about six months, which is about five and half months longer than usual.”