President-elect Barack Obama will inherit two wars and the worst economic conditions in three generations when he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. Ironically, that challenge might be a blessing for Obama — unemployment is so high and consumer confidence so low that even modest improvements will let him claim progress.
Obama also brings extraordinary assets to the task.
The president-elect enjoys high approval ratings, well-regarded Cabinet appointees and a smooth running transition operation that grew almost seamlessly from his successful campaign team. Fellow Democrats will hold solid House and Senate majorities to help move his agenda through Congress.
But political veterans and presidential scholars say Obama can’t waste time. He must decide which major issues to tackle in his first 100 days in office, the time when his political capital will be at its peak.
His powers and popularity might wane as he looks to end the Iraq War and enact repairs to an economic system that has ravaged jobs, home ownership, retirement accounts and public optimism.
“His goal is to strike a sustainable balance between the politics of sequencing and the politics of urgency,” said William Galston, a domestic policy assistant in former president Bill Clinton’s administration. He said Obama must determine “what are the risks of overreaching versus underreaching.”
So far, Obama has given few hints about which goals might have to wait. Asked recently about tougher regulations on auto emissions and reinstating an offshore drilling ban, for example, he said his advisers would review them “in the weeks to come.”
Earlier this month, he told reporters he had not decided “how we’re going to deal with the rollback of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.”
Presidential historians say Obama will have to set priorities soon, even if he does it discreetly in the hope of avoiding confrontations with key constituency groups. On overhauling health care, for example, Princeton historian Fred Greenstein said Obama might create study groups and commissions that will push it to the back burner without leaving the impression that it is being ignored.
Greenstein, who has written several books on the presidency, said he gives Obama high marks for running his transition with the same brand of assertive self-confidence he showed during the campaign.
The transition has been characterized, he said, by “a very strong sense of maintaining control and professing to be waiting in the wings but filling up all the presidential space, and doing things in textbook order.”
Obama’s first high-stakes policy choices will involve a costly stimulus plan, which might be ready for his signature within days of taking office. His aides are working with congressional leaders on a package that could spend US$850 billion over two years, much of it on infrastructure, schools and other construction-heavy projects.
He must pick winners and losers from scores of interest groups scrambling for a piece of the stimulus pie. Some want billions of dollars for energy programs, including ethanol pipelines, nuclear power plants and “green” projects that use renewable fuels. Others want mass transit help, cell telephone towers, travel and tourism marketing and countless tax breaks.
“The fiscal stimulus bill gives him a tremendous opportunity to work with Congress quickly to produce a very significant piece of legislation” that helps the economy and “makes a down payment on some policies central to his agenda,” said Thomas Mann, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution.