Obama’s call for change needs wisdom as well

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of President-elect Obama’s campaign was the vagueness of his promise of “change,” which turned out to have little content once you got past the soaring rhetoric, leaving people of all persuasions to use him as a mirror to their own aspirations and agendas.

That very vagueness, however, may serve him well as he prepares to take up the reins of governance — although it could easily complicate his task as well.

President-elect Obama will assume office with two wars under way and the country in the midst of a financial crisis brought on by private greed spurred on by easy money from the Federal Reserve and government policies encouraging lenders to hand out loans to people who could not afford to repay them once the housing bubble burst. He will have a more Democratic Congress to deal with, one with a pent-up demand for more spending and regulation.

The breadth of his victory gives him something of a mandate, but a mandate for what? The president-elect would do well to consider that many of his supporters were not so much endorsing expansive new government programs as expressing disgust at the sheer incompetence of a Bush administration that topped years of spending increases and an ill-advised war with a trillion-dollar bailout program for the financial industry that it still hasn’t figured out how to deploy.

Those years of extravagance — some experts project a trillion-dollar deficit next year — will constrain the new president’s ability to institute ambitious new programs. Ending the Iraq war could easily be more complicated than one might hope. One wonders whether redoubling military efforts in Afghanistan and perhaps in Pakistan, where Sen. Obama has vowed to take it to al-Qaida, is wise or even possible. And new administrations are always met with unexpected surprises (see 9/11) that can change plans drastically.

President-elect Obama ran a sure-footed campaign that calmly overcame more experienced and better-known adversaries, which speaks well of his organizational abilities. He has an experienced transition team that has been making plans for several months. But the federal government is a far more unruly beast than a campaign organization, and while Obama’s instincts may be sound, his executive experience is still rather thin.

President Obama, then, would do well to start with a thoughtful agenda, not a hurricane of proposed transformation. His very election is already historic, suggesting a reflective moment.

Reining in executive-branch excesses, rescinding certain executive orders and establishing a government that actually functions rather than randomly throwing money at real and imagined problems would be change enough to satisfy most Americans.