Analysis: Obama walks a fine line between optimism and realistic warnings

  • Article by: STEVEN PEARLSTEIN , Washington Post
  • Updated: February 24, 2009 - 11:56 PM

Obama walks fine line between optimism and realistic warnings

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama climbed Capitol Hill on Tuesday night and staked his presidency on bringing the nation out of its economic crisis.

Not since Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first fireside chat, eight days into his presidency, have Americans been more hungry -- and more desperate -- for economic leadership. And not since FDR has there been an economic agenda as bold or ambitious, or as likely to reshape American capitalism.

Just a month in office, Obama has already pushed through additional fiscal stimulus equal to 5 percent of the country's economic output. His Treasury Department is about to embark on the second phase of a program that will lead to greater government control and ownership of some of the nation's biggest banks. He has assembled a team to pull off what amounts to a bankruptcy reorganization for automakers that will leave taxpayers as one of the industry's biggest creditors. And within months, the president has promised to deliver the blueprint of a new regulatory architecture that will dramatically increase the government's oversight of financial firms.

If all of that weren't enough of a challenge, Obama vowed to move quickly to revamp the health-care system, put the government on a credible path toward a balanced budget, dramatically reduce the country's carbon footprint, rewrite the tax code and reform public schools.

"Action, and action now," is how FDR put it in his time. In Obama's translation, "that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here."

It remains an open question whether by trying to do so much so fast, Obama will be able to create the momentum and sense of urgency necessary to overcome pushback from many Republicans, the inevitable opposition from special interests and the natural tendency of the system to return to the old political equilibrium.

And there are some who warn that in asking Congress to consider so many different issues, Obama runs the risk of political gridlock as one initiative is held hostage to another.

But as Obama sees it, his strategy is not to find a way to maneuver a wildly ambitious economic program through the twists and turns of a hostile and byzantine political system, but to use the urgency of the moment and his considerable political capital to reform that system and transform the way politics is done.

Certainly in his speech Tuesday night, Obama has reinforced the image of a serious and purposeful leader who aims to rise above partisan sniping and neutralize much of the cynicism that has infected American politics. His critique of the failures of the past were powerful and unassailable. And while his program is certainly open to criticism, he made clear that he would rather engage critics than simply defeat them. He attempted to be the grown-up in the room, willing to accept responsibility and prodding others to do the same.

While the economic challenge facing Obama resembles the one faced by FDR, there is one important difference. By the time Roosevelt became president in March 1933, the stock market had long since collapsed and the economy was already well into depression. He had nowhere to go but up.

Obama, by contrast, arrived in Washington just as the effects of the financial crisis had begun to hit Main Street and the economy was beginning its precipitous decline. Whatever he might do to slow or moderate the downturn, things will inevitably get worse before they get better.

For that reason, his speech was carefully crafted to prepare the country for a deep and nasty recession while reassuring us that we'll pull through it if we pull together behind his program.

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