Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency will be seen as one of the most brilliantly planned and executed in the country’s history. The challenges that will confront him as president do not rise to quite that level – the US does not face Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, and it is not literally at war with itself – but they will suffice to be getting on with.
What happens when an irresistible politician meets an immovable political or economic reality? Is a superb campaigner equipped to be a good president in testing circumstances?
Or is it rather as Bob Dylan put it: “The louder they come, the harder they crack?”
Mr Obama’s stunning political talents are indeed great assets, more so in the US system than they would be elsewhere. His mastery of the campaigning art has two aspects – and both should be as valuable in office as they were in winning it.
One is his personal magnetism. He is an instantly likeable man; a fine orator yet no demagogue; an intellectual but not inclined to show off about it; a calm and calming presence. The other is that, on the evidence of this campaign, he is an exceptionally cool and competent manager. No Drama Obama, they call him.
Compare the discipline and single-mindedness of Mr Obama’s campaign with the shambles of John McCain’s. Compare its steady consistency of tone and message with the squabbling, indecisive, misdirected efforts of Hillary Clinton and her team.
If you ask why George W. Bush was such a bad president, it is partly because he scores so poorly as a leader and as a manager. Most Americans found him a likeable man, to be sure, but none would accuse him of being an inspiring speaker, or even always an intelligible one.
At times a country needs its spirits lifted, or its nerves steadied. Mr Bush spoke well for the nation after the terror attacks of 9/11, but subsequently failed to rise to this challenge. His faltering, glassy-eyed pep-talks of recent weeks, with the financial system breaking down and the economy falling into recession, alarmed more people than they reassured.
As for Mr Bush’s management skills, one need only think of the war in Iraq or the administration’s lamentable handling of Hurricane Katrina.
An indispensable talent in a president is the ability to delegate well – to appoint good people (a president can choose from the best) and get the soundest advice.
To a pathological degree, Mr Bush has valued political loyalty over competence. Whatever one thinks of his goals, the results speak for themselves. Mr Obama’s choice of advisers is impeccable, and not drawn from a narrow circle of friends and allies. He demands to be exposed to counter-arguments; he is not always looking to have his own prejudices shored up.
Admirable as these traits may be, Mr Obama is untested in high office. Governing is not campaigning. An audience can be charmed by a well-turned phrase and a winning manner. Facts on the ground are less susceptible, and starting with the economy Mr Obama has to deal with some especially bloody-minded instances.
He promised in his victory speech: “I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.” Maybe in future he will be, but his economic platform – promising lower taxes for almost everyone and greatly expanded public programmes too – was hardly forthright.
He may in the end be a victim of his own talent. He set out to raise expectations and he did: they are impossibly high.
His ability to manage disappointment is so far untested. That is about to change.