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Obama's Moment Arrives

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President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address Tuesday following his swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Video by washingtonpost.com

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U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled last July that the argument was "without any support in the case law," and he ordered Miers to testify. But her successor, Fred Fielding, restated on Friday, in a letter made available to The Washington Post, that "the president directs her . . . not to appear."

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Briefs in the Bush administration's appeal are due on Feb. 18, and it will be up to Obama to choose the next step. In a July campaign appearance, Obama called the Bush position "completely misguided," but now he faces the prospect that a future committee might subpoena his own staff.

"It's in everybody's interest to have a negotiated settlement," said Perry Apelbaum, the House committee's chief of staff, and sources close to the incoming Justice team predicted that Obama would find a way to finesse the conflict.

The very ambition of Obama's program, which has grown in proportion to the scale of the global economic collapse, augurs a potentially transformative term in office. Bush's agenda was aggressively expansionist when it came to national security and to his own autonomy as president, but in many spheres he aimed to diminish government's role. There were exceptions, with the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare drug benefit, but the central plank of Bush's domestic program called for reducing the government's share of national income and its role as regulator of the environment, free markets and civil rights.

Now there is broad acceptance of a rescue package that comes close to nationalizing large swaths of the private economy. Even in its first iteration, the government's $700 billion expenditure to shore up U.S. financial systems will rival the roughly $1 trillion a year in "discretionary" federal spending -- the portion of the budget, not including interest on loans and mandatory benefits such as Social Security, that is negotiated each year between the White House and Congress. Obama, who told The Post last week that he must "go big" in response to "the biggest emergency since World War II," has spoken elliptically of the prospect that the cost could double.

Congress, the principal power of which is thought to be control of the national purse, has made little pretense of managing these vast expenditures. It will fall to Obama and his subordinates to decide winners and losers in the banking, financial services, automobile and other major industries, a span of control that dwarfs President Harry S. Truman's attempt to seize control of steel production.

The scale of the rescue package undoubtedly means far less money available for other spending priorities, which at first glance may seem to spell doom for expensive campaign promises such as universal health insurance. But the incoming president and his staff appear to be sidestepping that obstacle with a very broad definition of economic rescue.

Obama is arguing, in public and private, that a stable recovery will require fundamental changes in the nation's health-care system and energy infrastructure. Aides said he is signaling that he will try to pay for those changes, in part, with the vast sums authorized for economic recovery.

Beyond even that, Obama is citing the crisis as a moment of opportunity -- in fact, of obligation -- to address the structural imbalance between the defined benefits of Medicare and Social Security and the resources available to meet them. That imbalance has been well known for many years, but several presidents, including Bush, have broken their swords on the strong political resistance to anything that smacks of increased taxes or reduced benefits. Obama told The Post that he will seek a new "bargain" with Americans that would bring the costs of those programs under control.

Obama advisers are aware of the risks of taking on too many tasks at once or of provoking a backlash with too muscular a claim of authority.

"Obviously you want to avoid squandering power, and you want to avoid any sense that you're abusing power," said a top-ranking member of the new White House staff who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He and others cited Obama's promises to include Republicans in consultations and to increase the transparency of White House deliberations.

But the greatest risk, as the new team sees it, is not in tackling too much.

Said Podesta: "The danger is in undershooting rather than overreaching, given the problems the country is facing."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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