President's Historic Message Balances Urgency, Optimism





Barack Obama climbed Capitol Hill last 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.

Already there are signs that the demands of the president's ambitious agenda have overwhelmed the economic team that has been assembled at the White House, the Treasury and other federal agencies. 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....

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