It has become a near mantra for the president-elect: "We have only one president at a time." But as the last days of the Bush administration dwindle away, it looks more and more like that one president is Barack Obama. Over the weekend, while Bush was flipping a coin at the Army/Navy game, Obama was publicly laying out a vision for reviving the economy and America's role in the world. And if his fast-graying hair is any indication, he is already taking the new job very seriously.
In his most wide-ranging policy interview since he was elected, Obama rambled extensively on the economy, the troubles in Southeast Asia, the U.S.-Russian relationship, the terms under which the U.S. should engage Iran and his plan to bring jazz and poetry to the White House.
In the interview, taped Saturday in Chicago and broadcast Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, Obama said he expected the economy to get worse before it got better; that his task in fixing it will be easier than what President Roosevelt faced in the 1930s; and that despite their own strategic mistakes, he believes that U.S. auto manufacturers are the "backbone of American manufacturing" and deserve government help to survive their current problems.
Obama's facility with the facts and his quick and elaborate analyses of the world he will confront as president seems a striking departure from what we have come to expect during President Bush's tenure. The Obama presidency, it was easy to imagine watching the interview, could become a series of wonky seminars on domestic and foreign policy, with Obama as the chief facilitator.
He was unequivocal about Osama bin Laden: "…we've got to get bin Laden, and we've got to get al-Qaeda."
He was circumspect about taxes: "My economic team right now is examining, do we repeal that through legislation? Do we let it lapse, so that when the Bush tax cuts expire they're not renewed when it comes to the wealthiest Americans? And we don't yet know what the best approach is going to be…"
He was "heartbroken" about the issues confronting veterans: "When I reflect on the sacrifices that have been made by our veterans and I think about how so many veterans around the country are struggling, even more than those who have not served—higher unemployment rates, higher homeless rates, higher substance abuse rates, medical care that is inadequate—it breaks my heart."
He was nuanced, but expansive, in his discussions about how to deal with Iran: "I think we need to ratchet up tough but direct diplomacy with Iran, making very clear to them that their development of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable, that their funding of terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, their threats against Israel are contrary to everything that we believe in and what the international community should accept, and present a set of carrots and sticks in, in changing their calculus about how they want to operate."
On Saturday, on the heels of the announcement of dramatic job losses and their impact on the economy, Obama used his weekly radio address to promote a jobs recovery program he hopes Congress will act on shortly after his inauguration. He told Meet the Press moderator Tom Brokaw that what he has proposed will be the "largest infrastructure program—in roads and bridges and, and other traditional infrastructure—since the building of the federal highway system in the 1950s."
For all the wrestling with thorny domestic and foreign policy issues, Obama also signals that he hopes to change the White House, Washington and the country in other ways. Toward the end of the interview, Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, hoped to use their influence to bring more attention to art, music and the exploration of science than exists today. Any serious attention to the arts will likely conjur up more Camelot-esque comparisons to the Kennedys. (Speaking of the Kennedys, Obama declined to weigh in on the weekend's juiciest bit of news, that Caroline Kennedy may be interested in the Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton.)
During the wide-ranging discussion, Obama showed just one flicker of weakness. Prodded by Brokaw to address the status of his smoking habit, Obama admitted that he had on occasion "fallen off the wagon." Most Americans will likely cut the guy a break. Fighting through the longest presidential campaign in history to become the country's first African-American president as the nation descends into economic freefall could send just about anyone out back for a smoke. But Obama assured Brokaw that he will not violate the White House smoking ban. "What I would say is, is that I have done a terrific job under the circumstances of making myself much healthier, and I think that you will not see any violations of these rules in the White House." Of all the ethical and political lapses that have occurred in the White House in the past 16 years, a puff would hardly rank in the top 10. But here's hoping there's enough Nicorette around the place to keep him honest.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor at The Root.