WASHINGTON—Forget "hope" and "change" and "yes we can." The word that will matter most, when Barack Obama assumes the Oval Office, is "doable."
Teary-eyed jubilation is giving way to clear-eyed realism. As his campaign rhetoric runs into governing reality, Obama will have to contend with a set of political and practical restrictions that are perhaps more daunting than any faced by an incoming president since Franklin Roosevelt took over amid the Great Depression. And he will have to tailor his early policy agenda accordingly.
Obama is set to inherit a plunging economy, ongoing wars and a massive federal deficit coupled with a long national wish list. His party owns large House and Senate majorities, but the numbers hide major disagreements over priorities. He will be pulled by core Democratic groups who have waited years to advance their interests, by the weight of his campaign promises and by the expectations of a beleaguered electorate.
So what can he do? With those constraints and history in mind, politicians and policy experts suggest several domestic and foreign initiatives, costing relatively modest amounts by today's spending standards, many of them tinged in green.
Nearly all the officeholders and experts said the president-elect must begin by stimulating the economy further, a move Obama himself called "long overdue" in a news conference Friday. Several suggested building the stimulus package around energy development, including modernizing the electric grid, building mass transit lines and creating manufacturing jobs in the alternative energy sector.
"I hope they realize the seriousness of what's in front of them and make the economy an absolute priority," said Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, a Democrat who has pushed alternative energy development to soothe his state's aching economy.
Added Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat who took office two years after his party won control of the state legislature—the same scenario Obama will face in Washington: "From the perspective of creating jobs, at a time when you also have to alter course on our energy policy, thinking about a new energy economy is absolutely the way to do it."
One possible blueprint for an energy-themed stimulus plan comes from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, headed by Obama transition team member—and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton— John Podesta. The center's nearly $55 billion proposal aims to immediately boost energy production and efficiency, including weatherizing 1 million homes, encouraging solar panel construction and funding transit projects in 23 states.
Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the center, estimates the plan would create 1 million jobs. As a side benefit, it would help cut heating costs, save energy and nudge the country away from its dependence on foreign oil—benefits that "you wouldn't get from, say, repaving a highway," he said.
Robert Shapiro, a former Clinton economic adviser who now heads the Globalization Initiative for Washington-based NDN, a progressive think tank, said Obama should include alternative energy development in a stimulus package that also advances his campaign goals of health-care reform and worker training.
Obama should use the stimulus, Shapiro said, "to make down payments on the long-term investments he's committed to already for the health of the economy."
Shapiro and others also say Obama needs more stimulus to address the economy early on; in Weiss' words, it's step one of a three-part "stop the bleeding, surgery, healing" process that also includes stabilizing the banking and automotive industries and fostering economic growth.
Among the ideas Shapiro offers is using the government's new control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to renegotiate terms of mortgages in danger of foreclosure, in hopes of preventing a second housing crisis.
Obama could borrow a quick and marketable longer-term growth plan—entirely or in pieces—from his new chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). In the House, Emanuel pushed a so-called New Deal for the New Economy, which included a consolidated higher education tax credit, expanded health-care access, a new retirement savings plan to supplement Social Security and alternative energy investment.
Some foreign policy experts also encouraged Obama to think green as he charts his administration's course abroad.
William Chandler, the director of the Carnegie Energy and Climate Program, urged Obama to quickly seek a partnership with China to address global warming—including joint financing for energy-efficiency technologies, teaming up on research and development to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and laying groundwork for a global climate-change accord.
"If we approach this early," Chandler said, "with a package of ideas that benefit both sides, it would signal a new kind of American foreign policy, one more of partnership."
Other foreign policy questions appear more pressing to voters, starting with the Iraq War. Obama has pledged to withdraw troops, but how quickly he does that could divide his own party between more liberal and more centrist members.
Rifts could also appear over taxes and spending. Some Capitol Hill Democrats appear inclined to roll up more government debt—for stimulus or other major proposals, such as health-care reform. Others, including the large "Blue Dog" coalition that preaches fiscal conservatism, would prefer to keep deficits down.
Obama could learn from Clinton and former President Jimmy Carter, who both entered with Democratic majorities in Congress but struggled to advance some of their top priorities.
Ritter, the Colorado governor, said the most important lesson he could offer Obama was to make a good plan for dealing with legislators. He recalled one of the first pieces of legislation that Colorado Democrats sent to his desk after his 2006 election, a bill that made union organizing easier, and which Ritter didn't like. He vetoed it.
Obama, Ritter said, "certainly wants to avoid having that happen."