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Evans

Obama's Grand Ambitions

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Feb 25, 2009

Last night, President Barack Obama laid out his ambitions in his address to Congress. And true to his word, he is pursuing change, and transformative change at that, as his ambition is no less than changing people's perception about government and its role in the economy and our lives. The problem is that his plans are too ambitious for congress to handle this year.

Obama simply wants to restore a belief that government can help solve our problems overthrowing the reigning Republican paradigm that government is the problem and that if we get it out of the way then people will prosper. This is nothing short of transformational. The reigning anti-government paradigm of Reagan has governed American politics and made people skeptical of government programs. Most obviously, this led to the defeat of Bill Clinton's health care proposal. Yet now, that paradigm is seemingly in tatters. Most think that the Republican Congress overspent, underregulated, and ignored major problems and it all contributed to the current economic mess.

This provides a great political opportunity. As Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has said, "Never let a serious crisis go to waste" because "it's an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before."  And Obama is trying to show he is different from the Old Democrat and Republican paradigms by claiming that he is not in favor of bigger government, just smarter government (as he said in his inaugural). He also is cognizant of the political opportunity referring to this being a time similar to the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Cold War and used that to make the case for government mentioning how it laid the foundation for the industrial revolution, created the Middle Class, etc. His view is that " government didn’t supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive."

That is what he wants to do again. This time though government will help make the US energy independent, reduce global warming, provide universal health care, provide education from birth through college, and be fiscally responsible.

And he wants it done now. Obama realizes that he has a narrow window of opportunity to enact this grand vision. With the opposition discredited and his large, ideologically cohesive majorities in the House and Senate, he needs to enact as much as possible before congress starts focusing on the 2010 elections. Plus, interest groups that would oppose his plans in the past are lining up to work with him because they view action on these items as inevitable and want to influence them. Knowing this, Obama has to strike and strike now. 

The problem is that his plans are too ambitious. As the Politico said today, "Obama wants to do everything but cure cancer. No wait, he wants to do that also." It is impossible for congress to handle his 4 major programs this year because they are technically and politically too complex. Health care makes up 14% of the US economy. You don't mess with that unless you have a proven plan. A cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions will increase regulations on business, reduce jobs, and raise prices. Should we really do that in a struggling economy? Providing education from birth through college is great but most studies show early childhood education gains (from things like Head Start) disappear after a few years of schooling. Plus, the problem is not enough money in education but how it is spent and the lack of reform. Will reform follow the money?

And then congress must push this through the legislative process. These are complex bills that require a lot of study and debate and cannot be rushed through. Yet the committees that will oversee health care (Commerce, Ways and Means/Finance, Education and Labor) will over see environment (Commerce, Ways and Means/Finance, Transportation, Senate Environment and Public Works, Natural Resources/Interior) will oversee education (Education and Labor). They cannot physcially handle all of those bills and members will not want to take so many tough political decisions which will alienate interests and voters in their constituencies. Plus, the summer is usually taken up with appropriations bills that fund the government. Logisitically, congress cannot handle all of these issues.

And most importantly of all, where do we get this money? Obama promises to let the Bush tax cuts for those who make over $250,000 expire while providing a tax cut to 95% of everyone else. He promises $2 trillion in cuts but that is unlikely. He promises to reduce farm subsidies for corporations but refused to vote for a plan to do just that in 2008. He promises savings in Medicare and Medicaid by reducing payments to doctors, hospitals, etc. but so does every president and these interests use their influence with congress to prevent it. The money for allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on the wealthy will not raise that much money. Withdrawing from Iraq will not make much of a difference because $50,000 US troops will still be in Iraq under Obama's plans and he is shifting more troops to Afghanistan.

Obama expects to cut the deficit in half by 2012 through economic growth and repeal of Bush tax cuts. If growth does not occur, that will not happen. Plus, that still means a $600 billion deficit which is a record (before this year). That is still generational theft. And this does not include all of the new money Obama promises to spend. Already, the Washington Post reports that Obama's budget is creating a $634 billion fund for health care. Where do we get the money?

Finally, Obama is setting expectations too high. Paul Light in his book The President's Agenda warns of this danger. By asking congress to do energy independence, global warming, universal health care, and education changes, he sets the expectations too high. Congress cannot handle that much which means Obama will fail iin meeting the expectations that he set. This will affect his approval ratings and his reputation which will make his job more difficult.

I admire Obama's willingness to address many of these major issues and more. But his first year is a big agenda for one term, much less two. Obama would be wiser to focus on one or two issues this year. Complete them and thus create more political capital and move the other issues. By moving quickly, he will spend on his priorities but the incremental nature of American government means that he will not get everything. So money with an incomplete program means less success which means it is more difficult to complete your process. Plus, it will potentially backfire and show that government is not the catalyst that he wants it to be. That is not the change Obama wants to believe in.