New leadership brings hope and challenges

January 19, 2009

Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, I always recognized the importance of Inauguration Day. Schools were canceled, and it was my younger brother's birthday. A new presidency was always a celebration.

This year will be both celebratory and reflective. My brother, John Marcus, and my son, John Thomas, turn 45 and 5, respectively. The younger John will bask in the warmth of his family. The elder one commands an air expeditionary wing in Iraq and will be with a different family. We will miss him.

The inauguration of Barack Obama potentially has important implications for both Johns. Every president has the capacity to affect both the present and the future. How the new president assaults the problems of the day matters a great deal, but what matters more is recognizing the long-term problems and communicating them well enough to attempt difficult solutions. All solutions are apt to be difficult, but the younger John needs a future that reflects courageous choices.

Remedies for false problems are usually painless and bring great reward, and we should expect some of that with any president. President Obama cannot merely tangle with the problems of the day. If he wants to be a great president, he will influence the well-being and liberty of both my brother in combat and my son in preschool. Unfortunately, to be great, he will have to anger and disappoint many. Truly great presidents often have high disapproval ratings. It is the demand of history. I do not wish him the disapproval, but I hope for greatness.

It is pointless to outline a wish list for policies of a great presidency. The makings of greatness won't be found in effective financing reform for entitlements, incremental adjustments to federal income taxes, or in nuanced adjustments to foreign policy. It will be in how he deals with the unexpected crises that lie in the unknowable future.

Some believe Obama's greatest challenges lie immediately before him: a recession near its trough and wars in Iraq and elsewhere. I hope this is so. I fear his presidency will not be that easy.

Success in handling unexpected crises won't simply be the result of temperament and steadiness, but also in appointing and retaining the right men and women in positions of leadership. That won't be easy at federal pay scales.

Obama enters office with a single albatross around his neck. It is the same albatross that tortured Bush, Clinton, Carter and Johnson. Both houses of Congress are from his own party. It is among the stalwarts of his party where the greatest anger and disappointment will lie.

On Jan. 20, he will again swear to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Anyone who has honestly taken this oath finds it transformative. If Mr. Obama has the courage to anger his followers and foes alike, Jan. 20 will be a day to fondly remember for more than just my Johns.


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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