White House reporters for The New York Times predict that the market collapse will force President-elect Barack Obama to renege on many of his campaign promises, and one warned that he may be a one-term president if the economy doesn't improve.
If his stimulus plan "doesn’t work out, he may very well be a one-term president,” said Jeff Zeleny, who covered Obama’s campaign. “It’s hard to imagine that he could be reelected if the economy’s in the exact same position four years from now.”
The reporters, gathered at a Sunday afternoon panel at the New York Times Center in New York City, largely concurred with the assessment that turning around the economy now trumps the issues Obama focused on from the stump until the market meltdown in August.
“A lot of the things he said on the campaign trail you can now dispense with,” said correspondent Peter Baker. “For the moment he has to focus on the economy.”
Baker suggested Obama would tackle smaller-scale issues related to his major agenda items as a kind of political “down payment” on his promises, but would not fully deliver on even some of his firmest pledges.
“You’re not going to see universal health care, I don’t think, this year,” Baker said. “You’re not going to see a cap on carbon emissions, as he has promised, probably, this year.”
And for all of his campaign trail talk about collective sacrifice, Baker observed, Obama has seemed reluctant to call for austerity in a challenging economic moment.
“He hasn’t asked anybody for sacrifice,” Baker said. “His whole economic package is about giving things to people.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who has covered the Bush administration for the Times, suggested Obama would use his Inauguration, which takes place in nine days, as an opportunity to ask for patience from an uneasy public.
One of Obama’s principal political challenges, Stolberg said, is: “How will he try to lower expectations?”
Despite their downbeat assessment of Obama’s first-year prospects, the Times trio also described Obama as a fast learner who quickly adapted to the political challenges of a presidential campaign — and who could show similar adaptability in office.
“More than any other politician, he sort of grew, month by month, as you saw him,” Zeleny said, adding that when he was sworn into the Senate just four years ago, Obama hadn’t given much thought to running for president.
“At the time, the plan, the Obama plan, was that he would run for governor of Illinois after one term in the Senate, or he might,” Zeleny said. “He had no idea what it was going to be like to run for president.”
Ironically, the White House team said, Obama may have found an unexpected cheering section in the form of the Bush administration.
Outgoing White House officials who recognize the current president’s unpopularity are hoping the president-elect will be able to carry out parts of the Bush team’s policy vision, particularly with respect to Iraq, that are currently incomplete.
“If Obama succeeds, it’s like Eisenhower after Truman,” Baker said, pointing out that Eisenhower perpetuated many of Truman’s anticommunist policies, winning over a public that had been resistant to his predecessor’s ideas.
“They think that Obama is not going to change things as dramatically” as people think, he said.
Assistant managing editor Rick Berke, who moderated the panel, noted that Obama had already departed from Bush’s precedent in one important respect: He hasn’t sat for a post-election interview with the Times.
“When the current president was elected, one of the first things he did was sit down with The New York Times and a battery of reporters,” Berke said. “This president has not sat down with our New York Times press corps in a very long time, as even Bush did.”