Steve Chapman

In this respect, the president-elect promises a continuation of the last eight years. With the exception of the recession brought on by the financial crisis, the biggest challenge is a vast array of commitments that have outgrown our willingness to pay for them. Living within our means is not a change Americans can quite believe in. Like Bush, Obama may hope to escape two terms without taking action on that front.

Of course, Obama would not have been the obvious choice if the goal were preservation of the entire status quo. His promises to abandon President Bush's policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the treatment of enemy captives, health care and wiretapping contributed greatly to his success.

The most notable change he will bring, though, is the most visible one: putting an African-American in the Oval Office. But that is in large part a validation of changes that have already occurred. It's no longer a novelty that some of our most admired public figures -- Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell, Denzel Washington -- are black.

In this respect, the presidency is a lagging indicator of racial progress. But Obama's uniqueness will make it hard to portray him as moving too slowly to bring about change. His face alone will rebut the charge.

What his admirers and his enemies have in common is overestimating how much change he would, or can, bring about. Obama is an inspiring figure, but also a shrewd conventional politician who leaves the windmill-tilting to others. He is likely to resemble Bill Clinton, without the appetites and immaturity: a pragmatic incrementalist wary of being pulled too far left.

That would probably be fine with most voters, who may love the rhetoric of change but really miss the way things used to be.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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