There are two ways to look at the job Gary Herbert inherits Tuesday as he is inaugurated as Utah's new governor. One is that it couldn't be a worse time to lead the state. The economy is in horrible shape and state government is looking for ways to shrink without inviting disaster. Real estate values — something near and dear to the heart of Herbert, who left a real estate career to become a politician — are sinking virtually everywhere, driving tax revenues down with them.
The other is that, as bad as things are, they aren't likely to get much worse. Twenty years ago, during another tough economic time in Utah, Gov. Norm Bangerter used to joke that he picked a lousy time to be governor, but a great time to leave the private sector. That seems true today, too. But as bad as things are, the next two years are bound to get better.
We're assuming Herbert's outlook lies somewhere in the middle. As he told this newspaper recently, he is inheriting the job at probably the most difficult economic time in at least a quarter century. And he has to deal with those challenges while keeping an eye on the special election looming in 2010. Herbert will have to prove to the Utah electorate that he is good enough to be elected governor in his own right. But he also has to prove the same thing to the delegates to next year's Republican state convention. Those two crowds often demand different things. Every decision from today until a year from November will be examined under microscopes.
And because Herbert ascended to power after Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, he may feel a moral obligation to stay the course Huntsman set on many issues. He is, after all, finishing Huntsman's term. That may mean, at the least, ignoring or downplaying the urgency of things Huntsman felt were important, such as climate change, without completely abandoning them.
Herbert has been criticized by some as being too low-key — a politician without a lot of flash or showmanship. That doesn't have to be a bad thing. A description of Herbert's governing abilities by former Utah County Commissioner Sid Sandberg gives us a sense of hope on this day of transition. He told this newspaper that Herbert brought "a calmness, you could say peace" to the commission during tumultuous times. "He struck me as someone who would focus on his work and not have some other agenda."
A sense of peace may be just the thing Utah needs. Herbert has said this office will be the last one he seeks. He has no higher political ambitions. He won't be making decisions with an eye toward his standing in the national Republican Party. His focus will be on the job at hand.
That is the way it ought to be, and his choice of Greg Bell as lieutenant governor ought to give the executive branch the sense of balance it needs to consider all solutions.
Although it isn't quite the equivalent of an inauguration following an election, this is a triumphant day for Herbert. He entered politics years ago to right what he felt were wrongs. Along the way, he learned the value of pragmatism. That approach doesn't always calm the political winds, but it tends to keep government sailing in the right direction.