Both Democratic President Jimmy Carter - who arrived in Washington with a mandate and control of both houses of Congress - and Bill Clinton were "chewed up and spit out" by partisan bickering in Washington over some of their signature issues, Whalen said.
For the first time in a very long time, Barack Obama is not crisscrossing a battleground state, giving a stump speech or frantically jetting from one stop to the next. As he takes a breather in his hometown, the Democratic president-elect already has begun work on his next daunting campaign: the coming administration.
Obama, at last out of the glare of TV cameras and away from campaign crowds, will meet with advisers in Chicago for the next few days and could speak to the press later this week to outline some of his first decisions and priorities, sources said.
On critical issues like health care, jobs, taxes and the war in Iraq, "we are at a moment where we don't have a Democratic problem or a Republican problem - we have an American problem," he said.
Obama's team, observers say, already is working behind the scenes to begin the process of hiring thousands to work in its new administration.
Obama offered Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the post of chief of staff, a move seen as a decisive effort to put at his side a well-connected, hard-nosed Washington veteran who can help him navigate the choppy seas ahead. He also is expected to move quickly to name a Treasury secretary. His Cabinet could include Republicans as well as Democrats.
Pressure from the left
Obama will then have to deal with the pent-up pressure from the Democratic left to manage issues like the war in Iraq, stem cell research and health care reform.
But political observers say hints of what's to come might be found in the Illinois senator's brilliantly run 22-month marathon for the White House. Obama surrounded himself with the best and brightest, then showed a focus and steely resolve not to bend to pressure when things got tough.
He marshaled new forces - the young, the Internet and amazing fundraising capabilities - to build his strength, and didn't panic when waters got rough.
Those qualities hint at how he'll run the ship of state, observers say.
"What we've learned about Sen. Obama is he has an unnatural capacity to focus and be disciplined," said Simon Rosenberg, who heads NDN, the moderate Democratic advocacy group. "He will have extraordinary demands on him the first year. He will set priorities, make a plan and stick to it. That's what he did in the campaign."
But not every party interest group or faction - especially those on the far left - will get what it wants. And that means "there will be groups in this town that will be disappointed with him," Rosenberg said.
"He governs from the center. He has to," said Barbara O'Connor, professor of political communication at Cal State Sacramento. "He governs by being inclusive and bringing in all the best minds to solve the problems," and that means including Republicans in those forces. "It's an opportunity to be post-partisan, to get a coalition of the willing to solve all the problems, and there is every indication that he will do that," she said.
Adam Mendelsohn, a GOP consultant who worked with Sen. John McCain's team, said his own party will face challenges as well.
"It's important for the Republican Party to have an open mind," he said. "And I think it's important for Barack Obama to be willing to buck the extremists in his own party.
"This country desperately needs leadership, and that leadership needs to come from more than the president-elect," said Mendelsohn. "It has to come from every member of Congress. The country is scared, the country is nervous, and if Washington just goes back to fighting and finger-pointing, then the entire nation will be collectively disappointed."
Even as celebrations continued in Washington to mark Obama's decisive win over McCain, Bill Whalen, a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, warned that the reality checks will begin soon.
"Now comes the part of governing," said Whalen, a GOP strategist and speechwriter who has advised former Gov. Pete Wilson and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "This will be interesting. The man has never governed."
Former GOP House Minority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas predicted just hours after the election that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would begin "running circles" around the new president.
But Pelosi quickly issued her response: "The country must be governed in the middle."