Obama: High Hopes, Risk of Failure

Blacks are pinning their hopes on Obama, but the "dream" may be hard to fulfill.

Nov. 7, 2008 — -- Lisa Sledge, 41, a single mother of five whose husband died of asthma last year, has a tall order for Barack Obama: clean up her lead-laden, low-rent New York City apartment, fix her failing public schools and create an affordable health-care system.

And rid her neighborhood of drugs, and lower taxes.

Sledge, a black woman, had tears in her eyes at Harlem's Sylvia's restaurant on election night, as she threw her arms around the closest person at the bar -- a young white woman also giddy with Obama's landslide victory.

"We can be friends now!" she said.

Still basking in the glory of America's first black president, blacks across the country are pinning their hopes on an Obama administration, seeing his victory as the ultimate fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King's "dream."

Prominent black leaders, even Republicans like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor Colin Powell, are swelling with pride.

"In 50 years, I have seen my country move so dramatically toward a dream that our Founding Fathers had," an emotional Powell told ABC's Robin Roberts this week.

But many others, including Obama's aides, are tempering voter expectations, knowing that the president-elect cannot be all things to all people -- especially now.

King's sister, Christine King Farris, 81, said the "dream" was still unfinished.

"I am sure that my brother would be pleased, but one of his thoughts would be not to take this for granted because of the struggles and hard work that brought us to this place," she told ABCNews.com.

Blacks Alone Can't 'Claim' Victory

"This is not like Joe Louis winning the heavyweight championship, this is so much bigger for the whole world," said civil rights leader Andrew Young, 76, who worked alongside King and later served as mayor of Atlanta.

"But black people should not try to claim it," he told ABCNews.com. "He [ ran this campaign] in biracial terms and had none of the scars of segregation, which is why he is able to rise above race."

Coming off one of the most divisive campaigns in history and shoulders deep in an economic crisis, American voters have placed their trust -- and their agendas -- on the man who has promised so much.

"That exhilaration will cool after a while," said Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison. "And then, the serious, serious work starts. This is not the end of a campaign, really. It's the beginning of something."

"This is a long, hard slog," she told Roberts. "It's not going to be everything that we expect, it's going to be difficult. But this is a difficulty that we will share with enormous enthusiasm."

Obama told Americans that his vision for change -- making nonpartisan alliances in Washington and reshaping the health-care system -- would likely take as long as a full term. Joel Benenson, his campaign pollster, told the media this week that the Obama team hoped the public would not view the president-elect as a "miracle worker."

Many look to the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, an idealistic Democratic president, who came on the heels of the Watergate crisis and the resignation of Republican President Nixon and promised "never to lie" to the American public.

The Carter administration faced similar challenges with an economic recession, long gas lines and eventually, the Iran hostage crisis that triggered his political demise.

Carter Aide: Obama More Like FDR

Young, who served as Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, is mindful of those comparisons, but likens Obama's presidency more to that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who shepherded the country through the Great Depression.

With the nation at war -- in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the world has high expectations for Obama's diplomacy. International polls showed that only Israel, Georgia and the Philippines did not favor Obama as a nominee.

Young said Obama could learn from Carter when he instructed his Cabinet to visit the world and introduce the new administration.

"They [American Cabinet members] listened to what they had to say," he told ABCNews.com. "He approached people with respect."

"The most powerful testimony" in Obama's election is that "democracy is real and it works," said Young. "If democracy and free enterprise work for us, that encourages others to have more faith in us and bring back investment with us."

Obama's ability to raise votes and money -- more than $600 million -- also may foreshadow his ability to get things done, according to Young, "if he can run the country like this campaign."

"It demonstrates such superior techniques, having been a community organizer," Young said.

But other black leaders say that blacks, who watched Obama "distance himself from his blackness," may not expect too much of his administration, at least not for the their cause.

"Most African-Americans have resigned themselves to the fact that just having an African American in that position, within itself, is a huge accomplishment," said Isaac Newton Farris, 42, King's nephew and president and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta.

"There will be some, however, who will feel, short of parting the Red Sea, he can't realistically impact a lot," he told ABCNews.com. "But having someone of that ilk is a step forward."

"I would hope that there aren't people around him that try to make him bend over backwards not to appear to be a black president and, thereby, ignore things that would affect African Americans," Farris said.

But civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who ran unsuccessful campaigns for president in 1984 and 1988, said the important thing is "walls are falling and bridges are being built."

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, Jackson's son, defended his father when he was caught on tape expressing a desire to castrate Obama for "talking down to black people."

Jackson told ABCNews.com that his remarks were "taken out of context" and that he has been an Obama supporter all along.

Though Obama will have to address black issues, like the nation's highest infant mortality rate and disparities in employment and education, he quoted King's expression, "What's good for blacks is good for all of America."

"We have a shared interest in the war, in loss of lives, money and honor," Jackson, 67, told ABCNews.com. "We have a shared infrastructure to put America back to work. The collapse of the bridge in Minnesota and Hurricane Katrina -- we are all suffering. But there must be a provision for those in the margins. That's government's mission."

Obama told Americans they must "sacrifice" to realize change and progress.

"We have big problems and big divisions and none will be healed overnight," said Sandra E. Timmons, president of A Better Chance, which recruits and develops leaders among young people of color. "But it's incredible that one group was not able to put him in office. It took us collectively to do so."

Still, some of the campaign's expectations are "overblown," she told ABCNews.com.

"Even in his acceptance speech, Obama had begun to manage some of them," she said. "Very clearly, there is a lot of work to do. But people have to be patient and go along."

Timmons warned that black needs are varied.

"We're not a monolith," she said.

But once public trust and the ailing economy are shored up, resources can be devoted to the underserved.

But can Sledge and her sisters in Harlem count on an Obama presidency to eliminate racism in America?

David Dinkins, who served as the first black mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1993, said Obama's election is a joyous occasion, "but we still live in a racist society."

"It demonstrates to everyone that folks of color can read and write and count and think like everyone else," Dinkins told ABCNews.com. "We've come a long way, but it's still important to recognize the legacy of slavery."

Needs Can Be Addressed 'Race Blind'

Manning Marable, director of the Center for Contemporary Black History at Columbia University, agreed that Americans can't look to their new president to solve all their problems.

Even though Obama's election "opens the door to post-racial America," contemporary black politicians like Obama, "don't have a race-based agenda and speak to everybody," according to Marable.

"What is racism at its core?" he said. "It is racial disparities, inequality that black and brown people experience and lower life expectancies, chronic health problems like asthma, absence of capital formation, the lack of homeownership. All that can be addressed in race-blind ways."

"The president doesn't do that," Marable told ABCNews.com. "I don't look to Barack Obama."

Where Marable sees hope for the myriad expectations placed on this new administration lies in the roots of Obama's leadership experience -- community organizing, or what he calls the "great wealth of democracy."

He said that the new kind of leadership will likely "emanate from the hip-hop community, prisoners, households with children, communities of color, the working class and the poor, and organized by youth and women."

For Marable, Obama's victory is symbolic.

"For the first time in American history, young black and brown children could actually realize the fact that the trajectory of their ambitions is boundless for the first time," he said.

Indeed, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who nearly lost his life marching with Martin Luther King, put black expectations in perspective.

"If someone had told me back in 1961, that I would be witnessing this unbelievable transformation of American politics, I would say you're crazy," he told ABC. "You don't know what you're talking about."