With unsuccessful wars running in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the worst economic crisis in almost 80 years likely to get worse long before it gets better, Barack Obama will face challenges of historic proportions when he becomes the nation's 44th president next week.
The jobs facing Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino — in relative terms — are equally daunting; maybe more so, in strictly financial terms, when you consider that states and cities have less room to maneuver than does the national government. In the end, finding our way out of the recession on a local level is a matter of cutting programs and raising taxes while trying to find efficiencies.
Distress levels, statewide, are going to increase. With $1.4 billion in state cuts already in play, Patrick is expected to ask for, and receive, the authority to slash another $1.1 billion. He is facing reality by seeking an increase in the gasoline tax rather than a boost in turnpike tolls to address the transportation crunch. But that tactical shift, while welcome, is a means, not an end. In the months to come, Patrick — like governors throughout the nation — will be operating within a sphere of diminishing options.
Obama, meanwhile, will be measuring his challenges in trillions of dollars, Patrick in billions. The fact that the Hub's problems register in the mere millions is little solace to Menino.
The city is facing an operating shortfall of $140 million. Menino has shrewdly proposed a one-year wage freeze that could save as much as $60 million. This is more than a good idea, it is a necessary action. Whether the city's too-often-unreasonable municipal unions view it that way remains to be seen. But if there ever was a time for them to step up to the plate and put their skin in the pain game, this is it.
Even if the wage freeze is adopted, the $80 million problem that remains will be a challenging nut to crack. Further sacrifices will be unavoidable. The police, fire, and park departments will all be negatively effected. More daunting will be the damage inflicted on Boston's public schools. (School superintendent Carol Johnson has ordered principals to prepare plans for 15 percent cuts.)
If restoring a sense of racial civility to a city rent by the shocks of forced school busing was former mayor Raymond Flynn's lasting legacy, instilling the hope that Boston's troubled public schools can improve is a hook upon which Menino can proudly hang his reputation. That progress — the real and the psychological — is on the line. Among the city's many important competing needs, schools must take precedence.
There are hints coming from both the governor's office and the staff of Senator Edward Kennedy that Obama may see fit to treat education as an infrastructure issue and include funds for it in his planned economic-stimulus package. Writing, e-mailing, or telephoning Kennedy's office could help make this happen. Menino this year is expected to seek an unprecedented fifth term as mayor. It may also be the first time since his initial run that he will face serious challenges. His recent State of the City speech should be judged as the unofficial kickoff for his campaign. As such, it was one of the best of his career. Still, what Menino did not say was just as important as what he did, and maybe more so.