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Originally published November 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 6, 2008 at 11:24 AM

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Obama aides address expectations vs. reality

A recession is just one of the barriers standing in the way of the president-elect's achievement of his sweeping goals. And the biggest hurdle could be lawmakers' focus on the 2010 elections

What's next

Dec. 9: Deadline for states to resolve issues regarding election recounts, controversies or contests.

Dec. 15: Electors meet in their states to pick the president and vice president. They are not required by federal law to follow the will of the popular vote in their state.

Dec. 24: Deadline for designated officials, such as the president of the Senate and others, to have the electoral votes in hand, although states do not face any legal penalty if they don't comply.

Jan. 6: Congress meets to count the electoral votes. The president and vice president must win a majority of electoral votes, or 270, to be elected. If there is no majority, the House selects the president, and the Senate selects the vice president.

Jan. 20: The president-elect is sworn into office.

The Associated Press

President-elect Barack Obama has begun an effort to tamp down what aides fear are unusually high expectations among supporters, and will remind Americans regularly throughout the transition that the nation's challenges are substantial and will take time to address.

Obama's advisers said they were startled, if gratified, by the jubilance that greeted news of Obama's victory in much of the United States and abroad. But while the energy of supporters could be a tremendous political asset as Obama works to enact his agenda after taking office in January, his aides said they were looking to temper hopes that he would be able to solve the nation's problems or fully reverse Bush administration policies quickly and easily, especially given the prospect of a deep, lasting recession.

"We have talked about this," said Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to Obama. "It's important that everybody understands that this is not going to happen overnight. There has to be a realistic expectation of what can happen and how quickly."

Obama's Washington will be a friendly but probably not overwhelmingly supportive place, since his coattails didn't dramatically reshape the House and Senate.

His ability to work with the 111th Congress, which convenes in January, is likely to be complicated by two factors: Republicans are expected to be a more conservative and combative bloc, and many new Democrats are from conservative states and districts with histories of electing GOP members.

"There is not a majority of liberals in the House or the Senate," said Gary Jacobson, a congressional expert at the University of California, San Diego. "He's going to have to listen to the Blue Dog Democrats."

Blue Dogs are approximately 60 moderate-to-conservative House Democrats whose chief priority is reining in spending, a stance that could clash with Obama's promises to spend billions on education, energy and health-care programs, as well as new tax cuts.

"If [Obama] had piled up 50 or 60 [House] seats, akin to what happened in 1964, you'd have the numbers where you could do bold things. But the numbers are not there," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center.

Obama is likely to face two big early tests, one on economics, the other on Iraq policy.

He is expected to fashion a broad economic-recovery package that includes his plan of tax breaks for working families, college students and small businesses, while reinstating pre-2001 top tax brackets of 36 and 39.6 percent for individuals who earn more than $200,000 a year and families making more than $250,000.

Analysts say Obama has a shot at winning an economic program next year because he'll have a Democratic wind at his back. Quick approval would show that the party is willing to act fast on the most pressing issue. That desire to act will overwhelm fiscally conservative Democrats' desire to trim the deficit, at least for a while, said Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

"Democrats will feel like auctioneers, just watching the price tags grow and grow," she predicted.

When Obama turns to other priorities, however, notably energy and health care, he could find growing resistance. While an economic package can be sold as a stimulus, health-care changes cannot. As a result, "it will be very tough to get anything that will cost a lot of money on a permanent basis," Jacobson said.

Obama's other big challenge is to change Iraq policy. On paper, conditions for a new direction look promising, since U.S. casualties are down and polls have found that voters overwhelmingly oppose the war. But changing Iraq policy always has proved to be a tough vote for many lawmakers, particularly in culturally conservative areas, such as those where many Democrats won Tuesday.

However, Obama may well find "converging scenarios," in which military officials' views could be similar to his, giving troop withdrawals the imprimatur of bipartisanship, said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center.

Obama's biggest hurdle could be the specter of 2010 politics. Fundraising for the next election begins almost immediately, meaning members will cast votes with an eye on how they'll play back home.

As a result, Ornstein said, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "has got to be sensitive to the needs and demographics of those swing districts." That means not pushing Democrats from conservative areas into votes their constituents won't like.

Joel Benenson, Obama's campaign pollster, said he thought the public appreciated the problems that the president-elect was facing and would judge him against that backdrop.

"I don't think they view him as a miracle worker who in two months is going to solve an economic crisis," he said. "It is a matter of being straightforward with people about what we are going to achieve and how fast it's going to take."

Obama will hit that theme at a news conference he is expected to hold in coming days, and in most of his future public appearances, aides said. They said they would discourage the traditional yardstick for measuring the accomplishments of a new president — the first 100 days. Obama told an interviewer toward the end of his campaign that it was more appropriate to talk about the first 1,000 days.

Obama's advisers said the tone of his acceptance speech Tuesday night — sober and devoid of the fist-pumping that typically would be in an address of that sort — reflected his awareness of these circumstances. The caution reflected the inevitable perils of taking control of the White House at such a difficult time, particularly after a campaign that stirred so much hope among voters.

Gibbs, the senior adviser, said one of Obama's main challenges was tamping down expectations a bit without making anyone think he was moving away from campaign promises.

"The flip side of this — and I want to make sure this is also clear — we also believe that it is paramount to begin doing everything we said we would do in the campaign," Gibbs said. "We know expectations are high. But disappointment if we didn't try to do the things that we said we were going to do would be far, far greater than anything else. People went to the polls and elected Barack Obama because they believed the fact not only that he could do what he said, but that he would try to do what he said."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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