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Anxiously Awaiting Obama

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CHICAGO---As Barack Obama unveiled his budget team here Tuesday, Emeril and Martha Stewart were mixing garlic, thyme, sage, butter and chicken broth in a vertical roaster as one local TV station declined to ape its competitors' live Obama coverage.

If only Obama's challenge was as simple as the iconic duo jauntily concocting a small "holiday dinner."

With his two Office of Management and Budget picks standing mute and as stationary as fire hydrants, the President-elect unwittingly underscored the unholiday-like pickle he's in as he unveiled Peter Orszag and Rob Nabors, as if he a museum curator and they his latest acquisitions.

He's not-quite-the-boss, though the media and Wall Street largely view him as same. He knows the need to be "swift and bold" in confronting the economy, though the guy in charge back in Washington seems more intent on being cautious and not making mistakes. Main Street's confidence is shattered but all he can do is exude competence and try to convince us he's assembling a world-class team.

"The posse is on the way" is the implicit message.

"What the American people want is common sense and smart government," Obama said. They don't want small government or big government, they want smart government, he reiterated.

Of course, Obama is himself smart enough to know well the fragility of such an assertion. He is, after all, a resident of Cook County, Illinois, whose County Board of Commissioners is led by one Todd Stroger, a dictionary definition of nepotism and ineptitude. Cook County is, by and large, a libertarian's caricature of inefficiency and waste, with taxes possibly now surpassed only by some Scandinavian countries.

But well more than 600,000 of Obama's county neighbors actually voted for Stroger last year, raising doubts about their high-minded yearnings or sanity, probably both. Now they hear that Stroger, who vowed to cut many thousands of county jobs, is asking that he be permitted to borrow $740 million to help balance his budget. Maybe he should call the Treasury Department and get a loan from AIG.

Give Cook County resident Rahm Emanuel, my outgoing and wickedly astute congressman, a shot of truth serum and ask about Todd Stroger and government in a county which includes the City of Chicago. Without knowing, I might wager that the new Chief of Staff's would roll his eyes right out his ears.

And we might also quietly put aside the example offered Monday by Obama about government waste.

It involved a General Accountability Office and $49.4 million in seemingly improper subsidy payments to 2,702 individuals over a four-year period. That's a tad more than $12 million a year. The folks at Boeing Co., located a few blocks away from Transition Central here, are battling with a European consortium over one Pentagon contract that would cost us about $200 million for each of 179 aerial refueling tankers, or about $35 billion in all.

Could we do with perhaps a mere 178 tankers and save $200 million there? One hopes that Obama, Orszag and Nabors will begin doing such math out of dire necessity as they seek what Obama called "a new way of doing business."

Andy Shaw, a fine Chicago TV reporter, asked a good and unavoidable question about the disastrous situation of state and local budgets, most on the path to cratering amid sinking revenues. He paraphrased the late columnist Mike Royko by characterizing their stance as, "Where's ours?"

Fortunately Obama knows he has to figure out the "desperate straits" of those economies and, somehow, "fast track" infrastructure and related spending. Short-term stimulus and long-term growth, with the latter linked in important ways to a declining public education system, seem genuine goals. It's part of the reason that even conservatives who opted for Sen. John McCain may now start to divine that this is not the wacko socialist with terrorist chums as depicted by Fox News Channel.

Obama clearly knows, if frustratingly so, his limitations until the inauguration on Jan. 20. Members of the pundit class jabber about how he and Bush must work together, right now, pronto, as if they were Emeril and Martha Stewart sautéing mushrooms Tuesday. He knows that nothing will work until our collective confidence can be bolstered and, sadly, the guys in charge seem to be fumbling that one, no matter how hard they labor.

All he seems to be left with, as he rolls out his new colleagues, is trying to give us a sense that he can be fully trusted with this mess and that his prospective all-star team can make headway when it arrives for duty. The bottom line is not too complicated: getting all of us over the current fear and unwillingness to spend money.

"You've heard a lot of promises," a famous pro golfer was declaring on a Golf Channel infomercial just as Obama was speaking. The golfer was hawking a GPS system for duffers; something to help us with direction.

For now, the President-elect knows that we've heard a lot of promises from the current management and are left totally wanting. We're desperately seeking direction and will cut him no small amount of slack.

Even Emeril and Martha Stewart, whatever their politics, might concede that a few of the ingredients for post-holiday success are with him.