David Ignatius

In this race, the victor may envy the defeated

WASHINGTON — A charismatic but inexperienced young candidate sweeps toward the White House, propelled by idealistic supporters and an adulatory press corps. Up to Election Day, his advisers worry that people may not vote for him, regardless of what the polls say, because of deep-seated prejudice. But in the end, he wins. And then the troubles begin.

I am referring to John F. Kennedy, the man who defied anti-Catholic bigotry and was elected president in 1960 at the tender age of 43. Barack Obama's supporters normally like the comparison. But on the eve of the election, let's ponder it a bit more closely and consider what lies on the other side of today's vote.

Looking through the gauzy veil of history, we tend to forget what a mess JFK made of his first year in office. A world of problems awaited him, and his inexperience showed. The CIA talked him into the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, intimidated him at the Vienna summit and then erected the Berlin Wall. JFK discovered that the world was far more complicated than his campaign rhetoric had implied.

The candidate who wins today will face a similar reality check. Indeed, the problems at home and abroad are so serious that you have to wonder why anyone would want the job. The risks of failure will be huge; the opportunities for breakthroughs limited.

Let's start with the hardest problem, which is Iraq. Obama may have opposed the war back in 2002, but if he's elected, it will become his war on Jan. 21. Iran is waging an all-out campaign to push America out as soon as possible — to inflict a visible, painful defeat on the United States. How can the next president extricate America from this war without further empowering Iran? What if Iraq begins to slip back toward civil war? Bush kept Iraq intact long enough that success or failure will belong to the next president.

And then there's Iran itself. Republican and Democratic strategists agree that it's time to try to engage the Islamic republic in a wide-ranging dialogue. But with Iranian elections scheduled for next June, will a U.S. opening benefit President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the worst of the worst?

What of the Iranian nuclear issue, which, it appears, President Bush will pass on to his successor unresolved? To take just one scenario, suppose the Israeli government sends an emissary to the White House next year with this message: "We've waited long enough. Either you take action to stop Iran from getting a bomb, or we'll take action." How should the next president respond?

Not depressed enough yet? Okay, let's think about Afghanistan. We're slowly losing the war there, the NATO alliance is in increasing disarray and the talk among strategists is that maybe the best way out is to negotiate with the Taliban. Perhaps John McCain could get away with that, but could Obama? Yet that's the choice the next president will face — between cutting a deal with our enemies or sending more troops to fight what may be an unwinnable war.

And now comes the worst problem of all, which is the economy. With luck, the credit crisis will have receded by Jan. 20, which means the next president will only face a ruinous recession as opposed to a total economic meltdown. The Bush administration may have made this mess, but the next administration will have to pay the bills. And the fiscal burden will fall on a nation where tax revenues are in sharp decline. Meanwhile the line is forming for more bailouts, with GM and Chrysler leading the way.

Will the next president, prodded by big Democratic majorities in Congress, really be able to say no to all the special pleaders? And what happens when congressional Democrats and their labor allies begin pushing for new protectionist measures to cushion the blow of the global downturn? That's a scenario for a ruinous American retreat from the system of global trade.

I have been describing what economists call the "endogenous" variables, the ones that are built into the system. The exogenous variable — the "X factor," if you will — is presidential leadership. A president who can communicate and govern (and in our world, they are really the same thing) can break out of the box that constrains his choices. That's what JFK eventually learned to do. But it wasn't easy.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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In this race, the victor may envy the defeated 11/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:03pm]

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