Obama: Centrist or Liberal? Five Key Tests

President Obama's inaugural address is behind us, with reviews ranging from tepid to enthusiastic. But excepting the frothy TV coverage, most found the moment outweighed and overwhelmed the speech. One is reminded of the last scene in the brilliant film The Candidate, in which the idealistic Robert Redford, having won the election, turns to his advisers and says, "What do we do now?"

Well, that's the question, or rather the series of questions, which will face the new president. Most haven't been answered in two years of campaigning or an active transition period. On the immediate horizon are five major policy decisions which will, to a large extent, decide the contours of President Obama's first year and whether his first term is successful.

The first question: Does he really want to hang the country's economic recovery on the House Democrats' stimulus package? Filled with pork, scanty on tax cuts, and lacking even the robust infrastructure spending which Obama promised, it seems more like liberal Democratic politics as usual than the right formula to jump-start the economy. And it is unlikely to attract much Republican support in its current form. So the first question really boils down to whether he will he do battle with his own party to make the bill more attractive to Republicans. If so, that will set the tone for bipartisan work on a host of issues including health care and entitlement reform. If not, this suggests we are about to see a series of measures enjoying only Democratic support and leaning sharply left.

The next question: Will his national security policy be rhetorically different but substantively quite similar to his predecessor? We have heard about ending "enhanced interrogation" -- but also about a secret loophole. We expect him to announce the closing of Guantanamo -- but not complete that task until, perhaps, his first term ends. We know he is setting out on a withdrawal plan in Iraq -- but will flexibility and a residual force be built in which would neatly coincide with the Bush administration's game plan? That in turn raises another question as to whether his liberal base will notice and care. Many conservatives are hoping he ignores the cries (if any) from the base, but changes little in practice from the reviled Bush-era approach to national security.