The outpouring of emotion when Barack Obama clinched his presidential victory Tuesday night was thrilling. Little more than a decade ago, when O.J. Simpson was found innocent of two murders, cameras recorded cheering blacks and morose whites, illustrating a split-screen America.
On this extraordinary night of national reconciliation, the cameras showed blacks and whites crying together, laughing together, celebrating together, and hoping together in a tableau of healing. You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by watching the joy that swept America - but you need a head of straw not to worry about just how Obama will succeed. His calls for unity will only last if he understands that he must govern using the same expansive and moderate tone his speech set. Barack Obama's stance on Israel will be one of many test cases to see just what kind of president this eloquent, talented, but still untested and inexperienced young man will be.
While exit polls confirmed that Obama's victory was driven by what Bill Clinton's people in 1992 called "the economy, stupid," a range of foreign policy challenges will haunt the administration. The top priorities, of course, are the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the possible nuclear threat from Iran.
In addition to having to walk gently but firmly in these hornets' nests, Obama is going to have to walk gingerly around his various campaign statements - and the intense desires of many of his supporters.
In Iraq his promises may prove to be a particular albatross. Calls for pullouts and exit timetables are effective counterpunches in a campaign, especially when the situation looks disastrous. But such specific vows become straitjackets when governing, especially when the situation has improved so dramatically - thanks to that surge that someone named John McCain pushed so effectively.
Obama's Israel policy will also present interesting dilemmas for the rookie president between politics and governance. Fears that Barack Obama will sell Israel down the river in an expression of fealty to Rashid Khalidi or other Palestinians he befriended over the years are exaggerated.
Obama has made too many strong, sincere, pro-Israel statements, and has too many pro-Israel supporters, donors, and aides for this to be a serious issue. Among many others, the man who helped Bill Clinton coin the phrase "Shalom Chaver," Rahm Emanuel, will be Obama's Chief of Staff. Moreover, it would take more than a first-term president with his eye on re-election to shatter the rock-solid relationship between Israel and the United States.
A more valid concern, especially for those from the center and right, is that Obama, like Bill Clinton, may risk killing Israel - or too many Israelis - with kindness. Obama may have a bit too much of a naïve, "We are the world" view of foreign policy for the brutal, dishonest, realpolitik of the Middle East. His closest foreign policy advisers seem to be a mix of "even-handed" Zbigniew Brzezinski types and Oslo-architect Dennis Ross types.
Moreover, one of the demands Iran has made as a precondition for negotiations will be an abandonment of America's support for Israel. Whether this stiffens Obama's spine, as it should, or leads to a cooling toward the Jewish state, may be a first, relatively early test, of Obama's direction.
Still, for now, all this is in the realm of speculation. As the records of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and all of their predecessors show, the presidency one imagines or promises is rarely the presidency one experiences or provides. Remember how George W. Bush was going to focus mostly on domestic policy, governing as a compassionate conservative? Remember how Bill Clinton was going to be a Mr. Clean restoring faith in government and avoiding the insider politics of the Beltway?
For now, then, let us all join the great Barack Obama love-in. Let us celebrate the kind of country America is - a country that can correct its mistakes, heal its wounds, and elect a black man president. Let us honor the impressive talents that brought this self-described skinny guy with a funny name to the heights of American politics, defeating first the formidable Clinton machine then the Republican juggernaut. And let the people inspired by HaTikvah not be cynical about this new harbinger of hope. Let us hope that the hope unleashed last night can be converted into a powerful governing force that revitalizes the United States of America - for America's sake, for Israel's sake, and for the world's sake.