President Barak Obama has been duly sworn in - although not without some small stumbling over the oath of office - and has been feted as few other presidents before him. Notwithstanding all the Inaugural hoopla, the great questions of the 2008 presidential race are still unanswered: Who is Barak Obama, and where does he want to take America?
These questions remain unanswered because the Obama machine ran a brilliant, almost flawless campaign in which they managed to present Mr. Obama as a blank movie-screen onto which voters could project images of who they hoped he would be and what they hoped he would do. This stratagem had never been used so successfully before - indeed, had never been tried on such a scale. Its success must have amazed even Mr. Obama and his inner circle. Of course, it could not have succeeded without the wholesale complicity of the Mainstream American Media, which struck a pose reminiscent of the three monkeys who see, hear and speak no evil.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama's record as the most liberal member of the United States Senate was well known, although most of the media declined to make very much of it. Instead, they focused their attention on the smooth, handsome, articulate candidate's soaring message of "hope and change" and his inspiring declarations of "yes, we can". These brought crowds to their feet again and again. Very seldom did journalists step out of line to ask exactly what we can do and what kind of change we can expect to see. Mr. Obama has made it all the way to the Oval Office - the most powerful room in the world - without tipping his hand on exactly which way his administration will go on several important issues.
This short article can't examine very many issues, but we can look briefly at a few. The moves Mr. Obama makes on them will amount to signal flares showing us his administration's direction.
National Security. Mr. Obama has already made two moves that indicate a more nuanced approach to national security than one might have inferred from his campaign insistence that all troops should be withdrawn from Iraq as soon as he took office. In the first place, he has retained Mr. Bush's Secretary of Defense, Dr. Robert Gates. If Mr. Obama wanted to stop all Iraq operations at once, he could hardly have chosen a less likely candidate, unless it were Donald Rumsfeld. Dr. Gates has overseen the much-denounced troop "surge" which - contrary to liberal proclamations, including some by Mr. Obama himself - has clearly succeeded in winning the drawn-out war in Iraq. If Al Qaida has not actually been defeated, it has certainly been seriously hurt. Its shrinking ranks are on the run. It seems clear to this writer that Mr. Obama recognizes Dr. Gates' competence and wants to make sure the ball isn't fumbled at the 2-yard line. Wrapping Iraq up successfully will take a potentially nettlesome issue out of his hair.
The second national security action, which came right after Mr. Obama took office, was the executive order ordering closure of the Guantánamo facility for detention of enemy combatants. But the "closure" isn't exactly instant, nor does it produce immediate release of prisoners detained there. Section 2 (b) of Mr. Obama's order states: "Merely closing the facilities without promptly determining the appropriate disposition of the individuals detained would not adequately serve [the interests of the United States]. To the extent practicable, the prompt and appropriate disposition of the individuals detained at Guantánamo should precede the closure of the detention facilities at Guantánamo." 
In other words, we won't close the facility until we determine what should be done with the prisoners, some of which are too dangerous to be simply released. Only the most rabid, dyed-in-the-wool fringe of the anti-war left would insist on immediate release of all prisoners. Now that Mr. Obama is president, that option probably doesn't sound nearly as good as it did when he was merely campaigning. Moreover, disposing of detained enemy combatants (and releasing most) is something a country typically does when it is finishing up a war. It is Mr. Obama's enormous good luck that the war is practically won, so he can let many of the prisoners go without causing an unbearable security risk. Where the release of some represents an unacceptable risk, Mr. Obama's order leaves his government some wiggle-room due to the "national interest".
During his campaign, Mr. Obama also made a big deal over "torture" practices. He has declared that only interrogation procedures specified in the Army Field Manual will be permitted. During his administration, America will evidently make war against terrorism in a "kinder and gentler" way. That's nice - very high-minded - and certain to please the Kum-ba-yah crowd who prefer to leave dirty tasks, like fighting people who want to kill us, up to others.
However, I should be greatly surprised if Mr. Obama hasn't left himself some wiggle-room on this, too. When his intelligence officials tell him we have a suspected terrorist who might know, for instance, which American city is targeted for possible nuclear attack, only a really stupid person would refuse to use all possible means - short of actual dismemberment - to obtain the needed information. Mr. Obama may be a lot of things - and we'll gradually learn what they are - but I don't think "stupid" is one of them.
Why do I think the "torture" issue will just quietly disappear from journalists' notebooks? This was all about hammering George W. Bush and making his job as difficult as possible. The rules will be different with Mr. Obama.
Economic Matters. The gigantic stimulus bill being debated by Congress, and eagerly awaited by the new president, already shows that Mr. Obama is not an economic "centrist", as many political analysts hopefully speculated he might be. It has been pointed out that the new stimulus package - little of which can possibly affect the economy in either 2009 or 2010 - amounts to more money than has been spent on the combined Afghan and Iraq war efforts. It is a huge, mind-boggling fortune, representing the triumph of hope over experience. It is also a celebration of Democrats' regaining political power. These funds are being spent with less thought, dollar for dollar, than any public monies in history.
Mr. Bush and his Republican Congresses certainly bear culpability for profligate spending on their watch, but this new orgy of spending makes their work pale in comparison. Perhaps sensing that they might have only a two-year crack at the purse-strings, Democrats seem determined to get theirs while there's still some left. It is (to borrow a famous phrase) a "waste and a frenzy".
Mr. Obama - whose campaign rhetoric made voters think he might be a new voice of fiscal reason and restraint - now speaks of trillion-dollar deficits out into the indefinite future. Deficits measure the difference between what we demand from government and what we are willing to pay for it. It is worth reminding ourselves that a trillion-dollar deficit represents money borrowed from future generations of Americans without their consent. We are taking money from our children and grandchildren so we can retain a certain lifestyle now, without paying for it. If a man did this, we should call it "criminal". When our government - which is to say we, ourselves - does it, we call it an "investment" or a "stimulus". Past efforts to pull ourselves out of recession by means of lavish spending have never been successful. Mr. Obama must know this, but he is doing an admirable job of pretending that this time will be different.
The other side of the economic coin is taxes, on which Mr. Obama also made enough good-sounding noises during the campaign to convince many voters that he really was a new kind of Democrat. (Didn't Mr. Clinton say that's what he was?) He made a lot of mileage out of promising 90% of Americans a tax cut, while saying the "rich" - i.e., anyone making over $250,000 a year (or was it $150,000?) - would pay "a little bit more". This was the "redistribution of wealth", which he imprudently mentioned to Joe The Plumber. (It took some mighty fast tap-dancing and a monumental media ignoral-effort - except on the person of Joe the Plumber - to get past that one.)
Now that the stimulus package is being constructed for real, the topic of lower taxes has come up. Republicans claim, with some historical justification, that it is the sure-fire method for ending a recession, but Democrats are having none of it. They plan to let the Bush tax cuts expire quietly at the end of 2010, and they argue against any attempts to lower taxes now. Mr. Obama has spoken of temporary tax credits as part of the stimulus bill, but he has not supported actual tax-rate reductions. Where he comes down on taxes will be another signal flare on how he will govern, fiscally.
Energy. Although he doesn't look Irish (could he be Black Irish?) Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats certainly had the Luck of the Irish during the last half of 2008, when oil crashed on international markets. Oil dropped from a July high of $147 a barrel to $34 a few weeks ago. Gasoline prices crashed too, although not as much as such a steep fall in oil should have produced. This took gas prices off the political table - a fortunate break for Democrats who had stubbornly opposed any relaxation of drilling restrictions, offshore or in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). Mr. Bush's July executive order lifted the presidential ban on offshore drilling, and Congress's non-extension of a similar ban in September signaled to world markets that the USA intended to develop its own reserves. This produced the price-freefall.
Mr. Obama's action (or lack thereof) on developing offshore and arctic oil reserves will be an unmistakable signal flare to the country, showing his intentions on energy. During the campaign he was ominously quiet when gas was heading for $5 a gallon, and he has not said a word about gas prices since his election. A new executive order that restricts drilling will send oil prices soaring again and arrest our nascent recovery. It will send new hundreds of billions out of the country to oil despots and satrapies and put us in truly desperate straits. Only a complete fool would do this. I pray Mr. Obama is not one.
Social Issues. Abortion and resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine are signal issues in the social milieu. Mr. Obama is already known to be far-left on abortion, having formed a solid legislative record opposing all efforts to control it. He has even voted against protection of babies born alive as a result of botched abortions. In a campaign appearance at The Rev. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, Mr. Obama hand-jived the issue by claiming that determining when life begins "is above my pay grade". One of his first acts as president has been to sign an executive order allowing expenditure of federal funds on abortions in foreign countries. The signal flare is up.
Sensing that their Moment is at hand, the liberal Congress headed by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid is mobilizing to pass a comprehensive Abortion Rights bill which would erase all abortion restrictions passed by states and localities, as well as all previous federal laws which limited abortion in any way. This would include federal prohibition of the ghastly practice of "partial-birth abortion", in which a viable, nearly full-term child is delivered, except for the head. The doctor then pierces the skull of the child, vacuums out its brain, and collapses the skull so it can pass through the birth canal. The bill would also eliminate "conscience" exceptions for medical personnel who decline to participate in abortion procedures. Abortion would become an entitlement fixture, uniformly applied across the land. Mr. Obama is almost certain to sign this legislation if Congress passes it. It will be a great tragedy for the country.
Democrats have also been beating the drum to restore the Fairness Doctrine, which ruled the content of material in the public broadcast media from 1949 to 1987. A radio or TV station could lose its license if the Federal Communications Commission found that controversial issues of public importance had not been presented in a manner that was (in the Commission's view) honest, equitable, and balanced. Rather than take this risk, most stations chose to reduce political presentations to the consistency of pabulum. Abolition of the doctrine by the Reagan Administration opened the airwaves to the robust, red-meat political discourse we have today. The careers of famous talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh were enabled by the Fairness Doctrine's demise.
Unfortunately, the restoration of freedom to the broadcast media did not redound to the advantage of the liberal point of view. Repeated attempts to establish liberal talk-shows have failed, while Mr. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and others have succeeded spectacularly. In 2007, conservative talk-radio showed its power by marshalling a vigorous call-in campaign to the United States Senate that stopped a "comprehensive immigration reform" bill whose passage had seemed certain. Columnist Rich Lowry called it "The Phone Call Mutiny".  Even Republican senators were offended by the "intimidation". Trent Lott complained that talk-radio was "running the country". Democrats said something had to be done.
Thus has the stage been set for resumption of totalitarian-style control of the broadcast media. Those piqued at being hassled by talk-radio hosts and listeners will rue their foolish support for "neo-fairness". It is a witless move. The wild card is whether listeners will stand still while their political lifeline is cut and their voice is silenced. I think not. Where Mr. Obama comes down on this issue will be another signal flare indicating who he is and where he wants to take us.
These are perilous times. If you're a praying person, pray for Mr. Obama. He's going to need all the help he can get. Pray that he will help himself, too.
 The text of the president's "Gitmo" executive order can be found at http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2009-01-22-execorder-gitmo_N.htm
 See Mr. Lowry's article at http://www.nypost.com/seven/06302007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/phone_call_mutiny_opedcolumnists_rich_lowry.htm