WASHINGTON — Like other presidents saddled with crisis, Barack Obama is embracing the worst economic conditions in a generation as an opportunity to advance an audacious agenda that, if successful, could reshape the country for decades to come.
The flip side: He could fall victim to grandiose plans and too-high expectations if he doesn’t deliver.
It’s clearly a chance he’s willing to take.
“We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again,” Obama told the ailing and anxious country last week. “Now is the time to act boldly and wisely.”
In his first five weeks, in his first budget and in his first address to Congress, Obama has made it clear he’s plowing ahead with his ambitious, big-ticket campaign promises. At the same time, he’s trying to reverse a recession that he inherited, by rescuing the banking, housing and financial sectors.
He wants to free the country from its foreign oil dependence, improve early childhood schooling, curb global warming, withdraw from Iraq, overhaul tax laws, fix transportation arteries, rehabilitate the image of the U.S. abroad and even find a cure for cancer. This week, he’ll host a health care summit to start a massive overhaul he hopes to complete in 2009.
Major questions hover over that broad vision. Can Obama win enough support from lawmakers and the public to accomplish what he wants without major changes? If so, will his prescriptions for the country’s ills work?
Politically, he’s betting the rewards will be worth the risks. And there are many, as he tries to do so much so soon into his presidency, with the country so deep in disarray.
“The major one is that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you move quickly without really understanding the problems,” said Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University government professor. But, he added, Obama has compensated by studying the issues and appointing an experienced Cabinet.
Obama could spread himself too thin to make the lasting change he promised as a candidate. Obama’s advisers say that at the very least, he will get credit for setting the wheels in motion on a range of long-festering problems. But voters demanding immediate results may not see it that way, and others may balk at his broad expansion of government.
Congressional politics could interfere. Many initiatives must move through the cantankerous House and Senate ahead of 2010 elections. On Capitol Hill, Obama faces the challenges of keeping his increasingly energized left-wing Democrats in line while continuing to reach out to reluctant Republicans.
If the recession doesn’t turn around in the coming years, Obama could stand accused of focusing too much on the long term. He recently acknowledged that his re-election prospects could suffer if the economy fails to rebound. He got no help last Friday with news that the economy contracted 6.2 percent in the final three months of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century.
Working in his favor are a high job approval rating and loads of political capital. Even before he took office, it was expected that Obama intended to spend that capital in a big way.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said last fall. He argued that the turbulent conditions opened doors for big changes in long-neglected areas.
In that sense, the new president is following an old model.
“Whenever there’s a crisis in American life, whoever is in charge has used it for a backlogged agenda,” said Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University history professor. “This is what leaders are supposed to do: take advantage of the situation to do what they think is good for the country.”
That’s not lost on Obama, who told Congress last week: “History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas.”
Rightly or wrongly, he’s often compared with Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, president during the Great Depression and a worldwide war, who seized on the public’s angst to push his New Deal. He overhauled the banking and financial system, plowed money into public works and created Social Security.
Three decades later, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson took advantage of intense social unrest to move ahead with his Great Society programs. The former Senate majority leader used his Capitol Hill savvy to advance anti-poverty measures and a civil rights agenda that granted blacks their first real entry into the political system. He also launched education and transportation initiatives. Medicare and Medicaid are among his legacies.
In the 1980s, Republican Ronald Reagan led a country faced with sky-high inflation and a growing Soviet threat. He used the public’s anxieties over the Cold War and the economy to win support for an expanded military even as he limited the size of government, instituted across-the-board tax cuts and promoted supply-side economics.
Obama now will have to use the political skills and rhetorical devices that have gotten him this far.
“He laid out this huge agenda. Now, he’s got to convince people to trust him,” said Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Liz Sidoti covers the White House for The Associated Press and has covered national politics since 2003.
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