By Joe Campbell
February 3rd, 2009
There are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
This brings to mind what George Stephanopoulos was so excited about last Sunday on This Week:
(Yes, I need to work on improving my DVR to computer quality.)
It seems that Obama is preparing to bet his presidency on a Grand Bargain – that will allow him (and us) to rewrite the social contract in a more extensive way than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even during Obama’s campaign, he spoke of tackling the challenges that were necessary – and not putting off hard discussions about our country’s long-term stability. But the financial crisis – which at first prompted the endlessly parroted conventional wisdom that whoever won would need to cut all of their projects and focus narrowly on the crisis itself – has instead proved to be an opportunity.
The amount of spending needed to stimulate the economy is enormous – with the numbers being thrown around today dwarfing that of any previous government intervention (save perhaps for our major wars). What Obama understands is that this type of spending, while necessary in the short-term, poses a serious long-term threat. Which is why he is now speaking of the second step – after the financial crisis has passed – of tackling entitlement reform and tax reform, and finally putting America on sound financial footing after years of prolifigacy.
None of these insights are exceptional. What is exceptional is how Obama is already shaping the arch of his first term, using this crisis to set up his next objective, and shaping the conventional wisdom.
The problem I see though is that the Obama administration has not done a good job of conveying to the public the place this stimulus bill has within Obama’s agenda. The word is that in the next week or so, Tim Geithner will present “a ‘comprehensive’ plan that [he] hope[s] will command market confidence.” My hope is that this comprehensive plan will lay out a broad legislative agenda based on Obama’s campaign. Based on the campaign plans and signals sent during the transition, here’s what I see:
Step 1 (The First 100 Days)
- Release the rest of the funds from TARP.
- A large stimulus package to demonstrate the government’s commitment to addressing the crisis, especially in alleviating it’s effects on the majority of Americans.
- A banking and mortgage bill that takes whatever steps are necessary to shore up these sectors of the economy, including new regulations, new oversight, and possibly additional funds.
- An infrastructure bill that would create a National Infrastructure Bank.
- Health care reforms that would extend health care benefits and attempt to control the escalating health care costs.
- A combination of a cap-and-trade program and funding for green energy.
The goal of this first period would be to begin to make both short-term and long-term investments into those sectors that will lead to long-term growth – which will stimulate the economy in the short-term. This is the spending stage. After this burst of legislating, Obama would be able to focus on tinkering with education programs and seeing what works, as well as addressing the simmering foreign policy issues which are constantly threatening to take over the agenda.
Step 2 (Post-Crisis)
- Entitlement reform (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.) Everything is on the table.
- Tax reform. Not much has been said about this. This will certainly be a wild card – but Obama has criticized our corporate tax rate for its irrationality. It’s very high – but due to the enormous number of exemptions and credits, the effective rate for those businesses able to lobby for benefits, it is very low. This should be rationalized.
- Universal health care.
- Education reform.
This is the “cutting back” stage and consolidation stage. The goal of this second stage would be to put America on a solid financial footing again – to eliminate the unsustainable domestic policies that undermine our stability and power.
This is obviously an enormous agenda. And it’s far from clear that Obama can accomplish this. But if he does not lay out the vision – which I have pieced together from numerous statements – then it’s hard to see how he can accomplish it. Of course, Geithner was just confirmed last week – and Obama’s only been in office for two weeks – so he does have a bit more time to lay this out. But he doesn’t have long.
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