Eight years ago, George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States of America. The economy was in recession and things were relatively peaceful abroad, except for the recent bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Bush's focus was inward; address the recession, Social Security and Medicare, education, taxes, and inject more faith based initiatives and policies into government.
In the blink of an eye, that all changed. On a beautiful late summer day, the defining issue of his Presidency quite unexpectedly became one of foreign policy: the War on Terror and subsequently, Iraq. He and his team flew by the seat of their pants. They made some big mistakes, but they learned from them, and made changes. To Bush's credit, untold numbers of possible terror plots have been thwarted, and America has not been attacked since. He is regularly lambasted in the media for being a war-mongerer and even criminal with tactics used in dealing with terrorists. But what would those same people say if we had been attacked again, even regularly, if he had failed to get tough? Do you remember 9/11? Do you remember the fear, the feeling of vulnerability and of having no control, wondering where and when and what the next attack may bring? That awful nightmare has abated, but if terrorists had continued to attack us every few years, can you imagine the collective feelings of despair, anxiety, and outrage that would define the citizens of this country? Our attitudes about the economic crisis would pale in comparison.
And so Barack Obama will soon be sworn in as the 44th President. He comes in with full knowledge of the economic and foreign policy challenges, along with the ever present threat of new attacks on US soil. Whether he and his team can face these issues effectively remains to be seen. In spite of these huge challenges, there is one thing he can hang his hat on; the defining issue of his Presidency will most likely be something that comes out of the blue, something he never anticipated.
So from where will the threat emerge? A solar flare or nuclear bomb exploded overhead that disrupts the power grid? Another unforeseen economic threat? A naturally occuring epidemic? An event in a relatively unknown country which spurs on a widespread global conflict? Or possibly something of his own doing?
Whatever it may be, like Bush before him, it will be Obama's capacity to learn and lead on the fly that will decide our fates.