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Obama’s First Test: Stimulus Today, Change Tomorrow

4 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

A favorite bumper sticker among fevered Bush haters held that the 43rd President was “all hat, no cattle.” Dictionaries of idiom define this as “when someone talks big, but cannot back it up.” We’ve known for a long time the size of Barack Obama’s head. Now we’re about to find out the size of his herd.

From his hard-edged Inaugural vow that “our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions, has surely passed” to his frequent promise of smarter government, Obama has reflected a national consensus — which seems to exclude only the 535 sitting lawmakers — that the old way stinks. And beyond his rhetorical insistence on transparency and reform, Obama has invited Republicans to the party — first a cocktail party, next a Super Bowl party — as though he cares about what they think and where they disagree with him. (See pictures of Obama’s Inauguration.)

But we now are watching the “narrow interests” stomp around the emergency room and the unpleasant decisions are watching from the sidelines, waiting for their cue. It is easy to dismiss the unanimous Republican opposition to the House version of the stimulus bill as bitter, clueless obstructionism. But I can’t help but wonder at the gap between the aggressively sensible things Obama is saying and the passive way that he is acting. And you get a sense that a lot of people in the audience, the experts and economists as well as the worried working classes, are starting to wonder as well.

One deep tension was built in from the start of the stimulus debate, when Obama stressed both the need for speed and the need for change. There is trauma surgery, and there is transplant surgery; one usually takes a lot longer than the other, and you’d be insane to try to do both together. So I wondered why he seemed to set himself up to fail, insisting that lawmakers do something very big, very hard, very fast, and in a whole new way.

Many people are now remembering that in Washington, bigger is hardly ever better. We’re glad that then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s original $700 billion bank bailout was split in two, so that having apparently squandered the first $350 billion, we have a chance of getting it right the second time.

Maybe that should be the model now. Within a nearly trillion-dollar stimulus bill there is probably enough that lawmakers agree on to get the kind of bipartisan vote Obama once aimed for: shoring up collapsing infrastructure, extending unemployment benefits, targeted tax cuts and relief — with strings attached — to state and local governments and embattled homeowners. Then take a deep breath, and let’s have the debate he promised, the rigorous test of “Do we need this?” and “Can we afford it?”, for all the other programs currently marinating in the bill, whether the honeybee subsidy or the Pell grants or the medical research or any of the proposed investments meant to spur long-term recovery and growth.

This isn’t just the first test, it’s the biggest. Trillion-dollar legislation doesn’t come along every day, and the hard choices are not just what we spend money on but how, at what speed, toward which priorities. Is getting a bad bill quickly really worth it? Is taking more time to get it right really so risky?

I would not put it past this President and his team to have calculated that this engorged House bill was precisely what the system would yield; that the Republicans would oppose it out of both principle and politics; that there would come a moment, once all the Old Bulls had had their say, for the new President to ride in to the rescue and actually fulfill his promise of “change we can believe in by turning this into a bill we can actually live with. Maybe he is building to a denouement, when a President who promised to make hard decisions takes a sprawling bill that tries to do so many things at once and performs some highly public sacrifices of some Democratic sacred cows. And by so doing, shows who’s really in charge of leading America out of these dark times.

If that’s the way this goes, he will have earned a hat as big as Texas. But if he keeps saying the right things while Washington keeps doing the wrong things, he will be worse than a passive leader: he will be the one who, with all the energies and hope he unleashed, brought the Democrats back to power, broke the legislative logjam and drowned us all.

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