Commentary: Sam Donaldson on Obama's Challenges

The following is a commentary by ABC News' Sam Donaldson. Click here to view a video version of his latest essay.

President-elect Barack Obama gets his first full-scale secret briefing from the U.S. intelligence community today on the state of the world – read, the state of the "tests" he'll face that Vice President-elect Joe Biden famously predicted.

Let's look at two tests that have just been presented...and let's assume it is January 21 of next year, when President Obama must deal with them.

Test No. 1: Yesterday, Russia delivered a stern warning that if the U.S. proceeds with the proposed missile defense system in eastern Europe, Russia will place short-range nuclear missiles on its western border aimed at Eastern European targets -- a step back toward the dangers of the Cold War.

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Now, almost certainly, the Bush/Cheney team will answer, "We think it's important and we are going to build it."

Candidate Obama, however, expressed some reservations about the wisdom of building that system. But in the face of a Russian threat, does he back down? Which would perhaps be seen as a sign of weakness encouraging more threats? On the other hand, if his reservations make sense does he go ahead despite them? And would that not de-stabilize the friendly Eastern European leaders who put their political prestige on the line in the first place?

Test No. 2: Afghan President Hamid Karzai is demanding that U.S. military air strikes stop killing innocent Afghan civilians. On Monday he said another 40 civilians at a wedding party had been killed by a U.S. strike.

Judging from what we know of candidate Obama's concern for repairing the U.S. image around the world by presenting a more compassionate American face, President Obama might be inclined to issue orders severely restricting those air strikes. To this, the Joint Chiefs of Staff might respond, "We aren't purposely targeting civilians, but if we embrace the maxim that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man be wrongly convicted, the Taliban and al Qaeda will take over and our fight against terrorism may suffer a mortal blow."

These matters are not hypothetical – and we haven't even discussed Iran and the Middle East and the rest of the dangers.

The first step in a successful presidency is to win the office. Barack Obama has done that. Now comes the hard part.

Sam Donaldson, a 41-year ABC News veteran, served two appointments as chief White House correspondent for ABC News, from 1977-1989 and from January 1998 to August 1999, covering Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton. Donaldson also co-anchored, with Diane Sawyer, "PrimeTime Live," from August 1989 until it merged with "20/20" in 1999. He co-anchored the ABC News Sunday morning broadcast, "This Week With Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts," from December 1996 to September 2002. Currently, Donaldson appears on ABC News Now, the ABC News digital network, in a daily show called "Politics Live."