Experts Volunteer Policy Guidance

By Alec MacGillis and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 13, 2008

An influential assemblage of left-leaning policy experts and a coalition of 30 environmental organizations have weighed in with their vision for the Obama administration, adding to the burden of expectations facing the president-elect from Democratic interest groups.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal research group founded in 2003, issued a 657-page "progressive blueprint for the 44th president" that emphasizes the need for "green jobs," universal health care and tax reform. The hefty tome, its authors said, is meant not only as an aid for Obama but as a benchmark to gauge his administration. The environmental groups' agenda, sent late Tuesday to Carol Browner, a key member of Obama's transition team, was shorter but equally ambitious, outlining policies to slash greenhouse gas emissions and revamp the transportation infrastructure and electricity grid.

Many of the ideas overlap with Obama's campaign platform. But the Center for American Progress plan is being scrutinized for additional clues to Obama's thinking, given that the center's president, former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, is leading Obama's transition and that many of the center's fellows will join his administration.

Some of its authors acknowledged that the financial collapse would force Obama to focus first on short-term economic fixes. But they tried to yoke their broader policy ideas to the crisis, arguing that tackling health care, education and climate change is necessary to get the economy on track. Arguing otherwise, they said, is a "false dichotomy."

The author of the book's economic chapter, Gene Sperling, who served as director of President Bill Clinton's National Economic Council, said, for instance, that he had opposed a big investment in renewable energy in the stimulus package earlier this year, because it seemed it would take too long to have an effect. But because of the possibility of a prolonged economic crisis, he said he now supports such "green" spending.

The eagerness to press an agenda that stalled during the Bush administration is palpable. At one panel, Michael Ettlinger, the center's vice president for economic policy, joked that "we're leaving the dark ages."

But Sperling cautioned that Democrats need to react to changing circumstances, which he said Republicans did not do in pressing policies that created more individual risk -- at a time when Americans were feeling less secure. The left, he said, must "keep an eye on what is happening in the world and not get its heart locked onto ideological positions that were determined years before."

Some of the proposals go beyond what Obama has talked about. Michael Barr, a University of Michigan law professor, suggested making 30-year mortgages the default option for people buying homes, unless they opted for something else. Judith Winston, an undersecretary in Clinton's Education Department, suggested waivers from federal school testing requirements to states that undertake major innovation.

And Rudy de Leon, a defense official under Clinton, spoke in stronger terms than Obama about taking a hard look at a defense budget that has swelled to more than $700 billion. He said that while the country has to "take care of our men and women in the field," beyond that, "you have to put everything on the table."

The blueprint leaves some questions unresolved -- for instance, the wisdom of undoing last-minute Bush administration regulations. Podesta and Sarah Rosen Wartell, another Clinton administration veteran, cautioned that while "some reversals will be important to show the change in direction the president wants to achieve . . . the demands from interest groups to focus on policy restoration should be resisted." Otherwise, President Bush's agenda rather than Obama's will dominate the debate.

But former Office of Management and Budget director Jacob "Jack" Lew and former deputy director Sally Katzen said Obama should take steps on Inauguration Day to block or delay any "midnight regulations" by Bush, just as Bush did when he took office after Clinton. Lew and Katzen further urged that the OMB begin reviewing health-care and defense spending, which they warned is spiraling high enough to impede Obama's domestic priorities. They said Obama should reevaluate Bush's privatization push, suggesting that "core government functions" be separated from commercial activities.

Former deputy labor secretary Edward B. Montgomery urges the Obama administration to more aggressively pursue worker abuses and safety hazards. "The [new] secretary must in the first year choose a select group of potential high-impact enforcement actions in the service, manufacturing, construction and mining sectors to send a message" about the government's new policy, he said.

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