Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, now a distinguished fellow with the U. of I. Institute of Government and Public Affairs, discusses the challenges ahead for President Barack Obama, a former Illinois senator.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar says Barack Obama faces one of the toughest tests of any incoming president, inheriting a deep economic crisis and two wars when he takes office in January. Edgar, a Republican and now a distinguished fellow with the U. of I. Institute of Government and Public Affairs, discusses the challenges ahead for the former Illinois senator in an interview with News Bureau Business and Law Editor Jan Dennis.
How difficult is the learning curve for a first-time chief executive, especially one stepping into such turmoil?
I don't think anyone is ever prepared, really, to be chief executive, whether it be governor or president. I'd been secretary of state and I'd been in the legislature, so I had a pretty good understanding of state government, but I've got to tell you I didn't have a clue. Until you're actually behind the desk where the buck stops, as Harry Truman said, I don't think you truly are prepared. Anyone who thinks they are is just kidding themselves because you just cannot anticipate the crises and pressures you're going to face.
No matter how good your resume is, there has to be a lot of growing as chief executive. And I think that's the key. Can a President Obama grow? My sense is he can. You watch him over the last 10 years and it seems to me that he's grown. I look back to the most successful president in history, Abraham Lincoln, who had probably a weaker resume than Barack Obama and he was able to do remarkable things as president.
What were the biggest surprises for you after you became governor?
The intensity, and the fact that you don't have the luxury of thinking about things for a few weeks or even a few days sometimes. Plus, if you mess up, there's nobody behind you to catch it. As president, that's pretty scary because if you miscalculate you could see the economy completely collapse or you could see tens of thousands of people killed by a terrorist attack. So the stakes are extremely high.
How important is setting a tone for the new administration?
It's very important, and I think Sen. Obama started setting the tone on election night. People don't always have their minds made up about a candidate even if they vote for them. They have to wait and see them in office, but it doesn't take long before they form judgments. And once those judgments are formed it's very difficult to change them.
Do you think the history surrounding Obama's election has heightened expectations, and could that ultimately pose a problem for his administration? Could it shorten the honeymoon Americans will give him?
I think his honeymoon might be shorter just because of the crisis he faces. There's also a segment of the population out there - minorities in particular - who are very excited about this election and probably have higher expectations than he can deliver on. A lot of people think he is going to solve their particular problem, and I'm not sure how many problems he's going to be able to solve because he's got to prioritize and the big priority is the economy. How he handles that, how he explains to the American people - particularly his strongest supporters - why he can't do everything as soon as they want him to do it is going to be a key to his success. My sense is he'll probably handle that well. He's by far the best orator of any president I've known, and one of the best communicators.
What advice do you have for citizens? Should we be patient, demanding or somewhere in between?
I think they need to be as patient as they can be. Becoming president is a daunting task any time, and this time ranks up there with the most daunting in history. To me, Lincoln had the biggest challenge. FDR had a very challenging time, and so did President Ford, who came in after Watergate. This ranks right behind those, I think. So people need to realize that this president is going into a very difficult situation and they can't expect meaningful results quickly. I'm sure people will be more impatient than they should be, but at the same time the president-elect needs to know that and realize he's got to reassure them.
Based on your experience as governor, what advice would you offer the president-elect?
That the people around him are crucial and that it's important to reach out. Try to get as many points of view as possible and make it obvious this is not just a Democrat undertaking, this is an American undertaking. Those different points of view are very important. You need to have folks who are sensitive to a range of issues and get their opinions before you make decisions.
He also needs to realize there are going to be tough days. He's done the easy part, getting elected. Now he has to govern in a very difficult time. And in some ways it's more difficult because he's got such overwhelming numbers of his party in Congress. There's going to be a lot of pressure to just move quickly to the left and maybe not worry about people in the center or people on the right. But as president he's got to govern from the center and bring both sides of the spectrum with him. There's going to be pressure and temptation just to kind of take those Democrats in Congress and run. He needs to resist that and make sure that he brings as much of the nation along with him as he can, not just his own party.
Do you feel a stake in Obama's presidency, since you resisted prodding and opted not to run for the Senate seat he later won?
I don't feel responsible, even though some Republicans are blaming me (laughing).
No, I feel some pride in the fact that he's from Illinois. And also I have to say that the fact that he's the first man of color to be elected president is very significant. It's very appropriate in the same year that we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.
I think he could be a great president. He has that potential. It's not a guarantee he will be, but I think he has the tools to do an excellent job. He's got a tough hand dealt him with this economy. And come January, it's his economy, it's not President Bush's economy. People do very quickly switch those responsibilities over to the new administration.
I hope he succeeds. We all have a lot at stake.