With the economy in disarray and the nation's treasury draining, President-elect Obama and his advisers are trying to figure out which of his expansive campaign promises to push in the opening months of his tenure and which to put on a slower track.
Obama repeated Saturday that his first priority would be an economic recovery program to get the nation's business system back on track and people back to work. But advisers said the question was whether they could tackle health care, climate change and energy independence at once or needed to stagger these initiatives over time.
The debate between a big-bang strategy of pressing aggressively on multiple fronts versus a more pragmatic, step-by-step approach has flavored the discussion among Obama's transition advisers for months, even before his election. The tension between these strategies has been a recurring theme in the memorandums prepared for him on various issues, advisers said.
“Every president is tempted to take on too much,” said one Obama adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “On the other hand, there's the Roosevelt example and the LBJ example, which suggest an extraordinary president can do an awful lot. So that's the question: Is it too risky for the president to be ambitious?”
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Much of the issue may be out of Obama's hands. The $700 billion financial bailout threatens to push the deficit into the stratosphere. “The poor man has his hands tied by the economic and financial mess we have right now,” said John Tuck, a former aide to President Reagan. “I don't know what his options are. They're very, very limited.”
At a news conference Friday and again in a radio address Saturday, Obama signaled that he intends to move quickly to address the nation's financial problems, despite any obstacles. “I want to ensure that we hit the ground running on Jan. 20 because we don't have a moment to lose,” he said Saturday.
The argument for an aggressive approach in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson is that health care, energy and education are all part of systemic economic problems and should be addressed comprehensively. But Democrats are discussing a hybrid strategy that would push for a bold economic program and also encompass other elements of Obama's campaign platform, even if larger goals are put off.
Congressional leaders want to move swiftly in January to pass a major expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program – a plan vetoed by President Bush – as a step toward the broader coverage Obama promised. Likewise, Democrats plan to incorporate his proposed middle-class tax cuts in the economic legislation or pass them in tandem. And Obama could increase investment in alternative energy as a down payment on a far-reaching climate plan.
“I believe it would be important to show fairly early on that change is here,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a member of the House Democratic leadership. “One of the very visible ways to show that would be to pass some of the bills George Bush vetoed.”
Obama has acknowledged that the economy will force him to recalibrate his program but insists that he has not backed off his commitments. “We can't afford to wait on moving forward on the key priorities that I identified during the campaign, including clean energy, health care, education and tax relief for middle class families,” he said Saturday.
During the campaign, Obama identified many other priorities – withdrawing from Iraq and talks with Iran, tackling immigration and the issue of detainees at Guantanamo and trade negotiations with the country's North American neighbors.
At the same time, his team is tamping down expectations of instant action by discouraging talk of a 100-day program.
Obama's transition advisers studied how Kennedy, Roosevelt, Johnson, Reagan and Bill Clinton used their first months. The lesson many drew was that even if various agencies moved forward in many directions, a new president must husband his time, energy and political capital for three dominant priorities at most. Several Obama advisers cited Reagan, who concentrated his early efforts on pushing through major tax cuts and increased military spending.
But advisers also worry that putting off sweeping initiatives makes them harder to pass later, when a president's mandate and momentum have faded. Again, they pointed to Clinton, who delayed his ultimately doomed health care plan while he passed a deficit reduction package and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The pent-up demand from Democrats who waited out the Bush administration will be enormous. “In the next three months before they take over, the list of demands on the table is going to be staggering, absolutely staggering,” said former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, a Republican who endorsed Obama during the campaign.
Obama recognizes that. In an interview on CNN days before the election, he explicitly ranked his priorities, starting with an economic recovery package that would include middle-class tax relief. His second priority, he said, would be energy; third, health care; fourth, tax restructuring; and fifth, education.
But then he hedged, foreseeing the unforeseen. “We don't know yet what's going to happen in January,” he said. “And none of this can be accomplished if we continue to see a potential meltdown in the banking system or the financial system.”