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Originally published Monday, November 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Dealt a bad hand: challenges for the next president

The view from the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 2009: A nation in recession, a runaway federal budget deficit, spiraling national debt, two costly and frustrating wars, and the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks still at large. Oh, and nearly 50 million Americans lack health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid are eating a growing share of the federal pie, and Social Security's bankruptcy looms just beyond the horizon. So why would anyone want this job?

Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — The view from the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 2009: A nation in recession, a runaway federal budget deficit, spiraling national debt, two costly and frustrating wars, and the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks still at large.

Oh, and nearly 50 million Americans lack health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid are eating a growing share of the federal pie, and Social Security's bankruptcy looms just beyond the horizon.

So why would anyone want this job?

It's not only today's enormous challenges that will confront the 44th president, but also the near-certainty that some still-unknown crisis will erupt in the next four years.

"It's really the most difficult transition since Abraham Lincoln, to be honest with you," said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University and an expert in presidential transitions. "Lincoln, between the time he was elected and inaugurated, witnessed seven states secede from the union."

Given the urgency of the problems, there may be little time for a honeymoon. And the difficulties are so numerous that the next president will have to choose carefully which ones to tackle first.

"He is going to have to be very careful about the priorities he sets," Light said. "You can't just keep throwing priorities at Congress."

In the closing days of a historic election campaign, the candidates themselves have framed the contest as a question of readiness to meet these tests.

"The next administration is going to be tested, regardless of who it is," Democrat Barack Obama said recently. "The next administration is going to inherit a whole host of really big problems."

Speaking recently on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Obama tried to answer why he'd want the job at a time like this.

"I actually think this is the time to want to be president," he said. "If you went into public service thinking that you could have an impact, now is the time where you could have an impact. ... Every once in a while you have these big challenges and big problems. It gives an opportunity for us to really move in a new direction."

Republican John McCain also has stressed the difficulties facing the incoming chief executive.

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"We know that the next president is likely to inherit a significant recession," he said. "It means that unemployment is going to be higher. There are going to be greater demands on social services. It means that ... dealing with our short-term deficit and our long-term debt is going to be more difficult."

Indeed, the nation's finances are at a critical point.

The Congressional Budget Office recently projected a $600 billion budget deficit for the 2009 budget year — and that was before Congress authorized the Treasury to spend $700 billion on an economic bailout.

Unemployment is higher than it has stood in five years, with nearly 750,000 jobs lost this year. The economy contracted in the last quarter; if it does so again in October through December, the nation will officially be in a recession.

The national debt has surpassed $10 trillion, nearly twice where it stood at the start of the Bush administration, and the cost of simply paying the interest on that debt next year, $260 billion, will be more than one-third of what will be spent on national defense. Medicare will cost $414 billion and Social Security $650 billion, leaving little room for any discretionary cutting of a $3 trillion-plus federal budget that both presidential candidates pledge to tame.

The $10 billion going each month to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be better spent on urgent priorities at home, Obama says, but withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq in the 16 months after the election could be a hard promise to keep — and the widening conflict in Afghanistan, both candidates agree, demands stepped-up U.S. engagement.

It seems clear that an economic stimulus plan will stand at the front of the line in the next president's priorities, depending in part on what a lame-duck Congress is able to enact before Inauguration Day.

Norman Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, is advising the Bush administration on the transfer of power, a project he says the Bush White House is doing in earnest.

"Part of the motivation is the understanding that this is a wartime transition, and understanding that it is a vulnerable time and made even more vulnerable by the financial meltdown," Ornstein says.

"There is an awful lot on the plate. Not to mention the unknowns."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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