While the party begins


WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton's public performance at her confirmation hearings fit the giddy public mood of inauguration week.

It was all sweetness and light, hugs and air kisses.

Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, set the tone by proclaiming that Barack Obama's election, and his choice of Clinton as secretary of state, sent a signal to the world: "America is back."

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, Kerry's Republican counterpart, was grinning and nodding like a bobblehead doll. "This is very good news," he said. "President-elect Obama has boldly chosen the epitome of a big-leaguer."

But away from the ceremony and the TV cameras and the cavernous sound stage of the hearing room, the incoming administration's candid responses, given to the committee's written inquiries about the state of the world, told a grim and different story:

"The security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and the Taliban is gaining ground … . Afghanistan has turned into a narcostate… . The Afghan government is plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption… . A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, and all elements of American power are on the table… . Global climate change is likely to impact U.S. national security… . Terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, is indeed the gravest security threat we face… . Democratic backsliding in Russia is real and disturbing."

On and on it goes, for 80-plus single-spaced pages — a stark rundown on a crisis-ridden world that captures the sense of alarm underlying this historic week.

There are, very clearly, two Washingtons today. There is the celebrating capital, eager to party, tracking the arrival of each Hollywood celebrity and rock star, alive to the history of the moment, purchasing souvenirs, brimming with hope.

Crowds stand in sub-freezing weather on the sidewalks outside the Hay-Adams hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of Obama or his family. Residents cheered when he stopped at Ben's Chili Bowl, a local landmark, for a half-smoke (the local sausage) and chips. Half a million may gather on the Mall on Sunday to hear Bono and Bruce, Beyonce and will.i.am.

And then there is the city of reality: A town of experts and elected officials stunned by — and quietly fearful of — the litany of crises and threats, and the exhausted state of American power.

"This is a very exciting time … . We've had an extraordinary election," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. But "along with that … comes perhaps the worst policy inheritance awaiting a new president of any since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. We face a financial meltdown, a global economic recession, towering fiscal deficits … two active wars … you name it."

Consider the challenges posed by Afghanistan, Russia, Iran and global warming. Then add to these the other crises listed by Clinton in her written answers to the Senate's interrogatory. Gaza. The war in Iraq. The toll of  HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, cholera and other diseases. Civil unrest in nuclear-armed Pakistan. A Russian regime shaken by the collapse of oil prices projecting military force. Islamic extremism. North Korea's failure to dismantle its nuclear weapons. The chronic threat of Al Qaeda. Darfur. Zimbabwe. Somalia. Cuba. Venezuela. Food shortages, joblessness, rioting and political instability spurred by the economic crisis.

In keeping with his vow to be post-partisan, Obama has visited the conservative justices at the Supreme Court, dined with the right-wing punditry at the Chevy Chase home of columnist George F. Will and announced plans to honor his vanquished opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, at a dinner. But it's not just Obama's graceful gestures that are squelching partisan rancor — it is shared alarm.

"These are not the times to think in small political terms," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters, when asked why the GOP was not making more of disclosures that Timothy Geithner, Obama's nominee as treasury secretary, had failed to pay thousands of dollars of income taxes.

Across the aisle, among the Democrats, "there is not an arrogance, a belief that `We're in control now, we've got the numbers, we're on a roll,'" said Darrell West, an analyst at Brookings. "There's a sobriety about and a worry about failure."

A few blocks from Brookings, the neo-conservative scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, who once spoke of remaking Iraq and spreading democracy in the Middle East, are wary realists.

"There is a funny sense in America … that we are the center of the universe and when things change here things change everywhere," said Danielle Pletka, an AEI foreign policy scholar. Although she wishes Obama and Clinton well, "at the end of the day their latitude … is extraordinarily limited by the fact that the rest of the world really hasn't changed, and isn't too interested in changing."

The Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza offers proof. "There are certain intractable truths and in few areas are they as intractable as the Middle East," Pletka said. "The issues that have bedeviled the Bush administration will continue to bedevil the Obama administration, because in fact they are issues that bedevil America."

Not all is dark. The new team comes to power armed with a mandate to shake things up, and with sturdy majorities in Congress.

"Following a president with abysmally low approval ratings … change is welcome," said Vincent Reinhart, a former Federal Reserve economist. "There is a window open now. You can try almost anything."

And for a moment at noon on Tuesday, the world will look to America, and witness the results of audacity and hope.

That moment will offer Obama and Clinton opportunities: to reach out to Africa and the Muslim world, to hone the U.S. relationship with China and to exploit a slumping energy market and the economic needs of Russia, Iran and other oil states.

"Everything has seasons," Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said to Clinton at her hearing. "This is your season."