Analysis: Obama is so New Even While so Familiar

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON – The stately row of eight American flags, the seal on the lectern, the phalanx of economic advisers all speak of power coming to hand.

The calm tenor and self-assured demeanor that served him well as a candidate now look presidential.

The self-deprecating wit — sheltered dogs are "mutts like me" — conjure images of Presidents Kennedy or Reagan, not bad company.

President-elect Obama's confident and casual performance at his first postelection news conference Friday mirrored his countless campaign appearances. But it now carries the authority of commander in chief to be.

It's a political paradox for every president-elect: a familiar figure who just seems so different.

"Immediately after I become president ...," Obama said of his plans for the future. It echoed a line he said hundreds of times on the campaign trail. But now it's the word of the president-elect, not just the promise of a candidate.

Sixty-five million votes can do that to a guy.

Mindful of the weight of his words, Obama used them to lower the public's expectations for change — big change — in a country beset by a recession, two wars, home foreclosures, rising health care costs and a rampant federal deficit.

"I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead," he said. "It is not going to be quick, and it is not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in."

But he added in a statement that could have come from any past president: "America is a strong and resilient country."

And like multiple national leaders before him, Obama called for the nation to put aside partisanship.

Obama's audience is different, too. No longer is he only speaking to American voters. Now, his audience is made up of the people of the world, allies as well as enemies.

And it showed.

Obama has been criticized for willingness to talk with Iran, so when the question came up, he eased off.

"We can only have one president at a time," Obama said. "I am not the president, and I won't be until Jan. 20."

He is no longer a candidate wooing voters by appearing competent for the office and likable — the kind of person Americans would want to live with every day of their lives for the next four years.

For a president, being likable is secondary to being respected. Obama carries into office a significant question about how he will stand up to political battles over domestic policies and how he will respond to international challenges posed by foreign governments and internal economic woes.

He walked a fine line on the economy, stressing that President Bush is still in charge, but adding that the country needs a stimulus package "sooner rather than later."

If it's not done in the lame-duck session of Congress, he said, "it will be the first thing I get done as president of the United States."

A roomful of journalists is a good place for a president-elect to begin asserting himself — and show the easy manner that allows banter with the press and the confidence to make a joke about himself.

Obama asked a Chicago reporter how she injured the arm she had in a sling, then observed that she was the only known casualty of his election-night party in the city's Grant Park.

A major issue he faces, Obama said with mock seriousness, is the choice of a dog for his daughters. Here again, he said, care is required to balance the needs of a daughter with allergies with the family's preference for a shelter dog.

"But obviously," he added, "a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me."

A casual remark becomes something more when uttered by the nation's first biracial president-elect.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Douglass K. Daniel and Randolph E. Schmid write and edit in the Washington bureau of The Associated Press.


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