WASHINGTON -- Why exactly would anybody want this job?
The candidate who wins the White House on Nov. 4 will face the most calamitous economy for any new president since Franklin Roosevelt took over amid the Depression in 1933. He'll assume command of the biggest wartime deployment of U.S. troops since Richard Nixon was sworn in during the Vietnam War in 1969.
Their campaign promises — Republican John McCain's crusade against budget earmarks, for instance, and Democrat Barack Obama's commitment to expand health care coverage — almost certainly will take a back seat at the start. They'll be forced to turn to negotiating a new regulatory structure for financial institutions, rebuilding stock and housing markets, dealing with the partial nationalization of banks unveiled Tuesday and preventing an economic downturn from sliding into something worse.
Also on the immediate agenda: managing the reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq without sacrificing hard-won security gains, and stemming a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
"Walking into the Oval Office is tough enough when you're facing kind of the ordinary challenges that face any president," says Leon Panetta, a former California congressman and White House chief of staff for President Clinton. "But whoever is elected president this time is going to face a set of crises that no president has had to face in modern times."
The public agrees: 44% in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday say the new president will face the most serious challenges of anyone in his position over the last 50 years. Just 14% call the problems no worse than usual.
Representatives of both candidates are scheduled to sit down today for the first time with the Bush administration's "transition council" to begin planning the takeover of the government by one or the other. The FBI already has launched background investigations of dozens of aides to McCain and Obama so that some members of the president-elect's team will have security clearances in place the morning after the Nov. 4 election.
Whatever work is being done behind the scenes, though, neither candidate has done much to prepare the public for the tough choices and long haul ahead — an issue they may be pressed to address during their third and final debate tonight at Hofstra University on Long Island. The 90-minute forum, moderated by CBS' Bob Schieffer, is scheduled to be televised on the major TV networks at 9 p.m. ET.
At their previous debates, neither was willing to specify a single significant campaign promise that was likely to be postponed or abandoned because of the demands of responding to the economy's meltdown.
Most of those surveyed predict that the candidate they support would be able to make the economy grow within two years of taking office.
Hopes are particularly high for Obama. Half of his backers say he'll be able to set the nation on the right course within two years, and 60% predict he will have withdrawn most U.S. combat troops from Iraq by then.
Analysts question whether those expectations are realistic.
"We tend to remember that first 100 days" of FDR's presidency, says Paul Light, a professor at New York University who studies governmental operations. In that time, Congress enacted a rush of economic stimulus and regulatory legislation.
"But that transition went on for six or seven years — trying new things, trying to get the economy restarted, all sorts of maneuvering, and then finally things started to turn around," Light says. "It was brutal."
Responding to the current financial crisis has trumped other issues in the final weeks of the campaign — including Iraq, which a year ago seemed likely to dominate the election debate.
Both senators returned to Washington to vote in favor of the $700 billion bailout package.
In a speech Monday, Obama supported a series of additional steps, including a 90-day moratorium on home foreclosures and a tax credit to spur job creation. On Tuesday, McCain unveiled proposed tax breaks aimed at helping seniors, homeowners and the unemployed.
"They're going to be working on this crisis 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the foreseeable future," Mark Zandi, an analyst with Moody's economy.com and an occasional McCain adviser, says of the new administration.
"That's not only responding to the ongoing crisis but cleaning up the mess afterward. That will take most of the first term."
First, restore confidence
Forget four years.
In the first six weeks of his tenure, the new president's to-do list will include:
*Restoring a sense of public confidence that the country can meet and solve the financial challenges ahead. At campaign rallies, Obama already has quoted FDR's admonition that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
*Guiding implementation of the financial industry rescue plan, including figuring out which toxic assets Treasury should buy from struggling institutions and how much to pay for them.
The move to use $250 billion of the bailout to buy stakes in banks will put the government in the unfamiliar role of part owner of institutions that embody free-market capitalism.
*Beginning to revamp a regulatory structure largely built during the Depression so that it reflects the complexity of the current global financial system.
*Deciding whether and how to begin the drawdown of most U.S. combat forces from Iraq. Obama says he wants to complete the withdrawal in his first 16 months in office. McCain says a reduction is on the horizon but hasn't set a timetable.
Still, U.S. commanders may be reluctant to support changes in troop levels until after provincial elections that are supposed to be held by Jan. 31 but could take longer.
*Responding to the urgent request this month by Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, for more U.S. troops there. Army Times reports that Gen. David Petraeus, who takes overall command of the region on Oct. 31, plans to deliver a report to the president in February after conducting a "top-to-bottom" review.
*Submitting the federal budget for fiscal 2010 to Congress in early February. It presumably will reflect the costs of the bailout plan and the revenue impact of the economic slowdown.
Economist Martin A. Sullivan, a former Treasury and Capitol Hill staffer, calculates in an article posted last week at taxanalysts .com that the deficit for 2009 could reach $914 billion — 6.2% of the gross domestic product, a post-World War II record.
*Being prepared for terrorists to strike during the transition, a timing they have used before. The World Trade Center was bombed five weeks after President Clinton took office in 1993; the Madrid train bombings took place three days before national elections in Spain in 2004; car-bomb attacks were attempted in London and Glasgow days after a new British prime minister took office in 2007.
Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University and director of the non-partisan White House Transition Project, says terrorists see political transitions as "soft times" when governments are in flux and an attack can have broad impact.
"If you have national security issues, a transition represents a vulnerable time for a government and a country," she says.
There are other pressing problems — for one, the looming fiscal crisis for Medicare, which began running a deficit this year.
Medicare's fiscal problems have triggered an automatic "funding warning" by its trustees, which under a 2003 law means the president is required to put forward legislation to address the issue within 15 days after submitting his budget next year. Then Congress must expedite consideration of his proposal.
Neither candidate has detailed how he would stabilize financing for the nation's health care system for seniors, though McCain has said he would appoint a bipartisan commission to come up with a plan.
About that vacation …
Both candidates have transition teams that quietly have begun planning for a new administration.
John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff for Clinton, is leading the effort for Obama. William Timmons, one of the capital's leading lobbyists, is heading McCain's group.
The 77-day period between the election and inauguration is likely to be frenetic as the president-elect names key members of the White House staff, nominates Cabinet secretaries and begins to receive more thorough official briefings on economic and international developments.
Clay Johnson, a Bush confidante who led his transition team into office in 2001 and is managing his transition out of office now, describes the process as "full of conflicting emotions and pressures."
"The president-elect's staff and advisers want to celebrate and recover from the grueling campaign, but they can't," says Johnson, now deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. "The new administration only has about 75 days to prepare to govern and deliver what they said they would."
The public already is focused on what should come next.
Two-thirds of Americans say that the new president's top priority should be stabilizing the U.S. economy — a task some acknowledge could come at the expense of other concerns.
Among those polled, 45% predict McCain wouldn't carry out most of his campaign plans; 40% say that of Obama. For each, the biggest reason cited is the need to scale back in the face of the current economic situation.
That attitude could create an opening for the new president to force action on the economy and delay attention to other issues.
"Urgency is a great motivator," Light says. "When we talk about policy change, the presence of a crisis is extremely important to finding consensus. That's how we got the bailout bill."
Despite its high price tag and far-reaching provisions, the package was proposed and enacted within about two weeks.
"There's no question that the economic agenda has enlarged dramatically, but the amount of focus and attention nationwide to economic policy has also expanded dramatically," says Jason Furman, Obama's top economic aide in his campaign. "So politically there'll be more bandwidth, if there's more of a sense you need to proceed on multiple fronts."
Furman adds: "Whenever this country has faced its biggest challenges is when we get the most done."
That was, after all, why the two candidates said they wanted to run for president.
Each outlined sweeping, even historic ambitions when they announced their candidacies last year. In speeches, Obama cites the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. McCain compares himself to Teddy Roosevelt.
Standing in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Obama said in his announcement speech in February 2007 that he was joining the race "not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation."
McCain, launching his bid in Portsmouth, N.H., in April 2007, said he was "not running for president to be somebody but to do something, to do the hard but necessary things, not the easy and needless things."
The easy things?
For this new president, that doesn't seem to be an option.