By Dan Eggen and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
President Obama announced a series of new policies yesterday intended to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, capping a week of widespread changes aimed at reversing the legacy of George W. Bush.
In his first seven days in office, Obama has banned the use of controversial CIA interrogation tactics, ordered the closure of the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and begun planning for the drawdown of troops in Iraq. He also imposed stringent limits on lobbyists, unveiled an $825 billion stimulus plan, and ordered a halt to any last-minute rules and regulations put in place by his predecessor.
The moves are part of an effort by Obama to follow through on his campaign promise to forge a new direction in Washington, administration officials said. "What you have seen in the first week is rapid change and a resetting of our global agenda," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "The president believes we can't afford to continue what we are doing. We can't afford to slow down."
Yet despite such ambitions, Obama and his aides are also facing a stark reality: Rolling back eight years of the Bush administration is not going to happen overnight.
Obama's call for tougher vehicle emissions standards, for example, ran into immediate opposition from major business and auto industry groups. His plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison has angered Republicans who object to transferring suspected terrorists to U.S. facilities. Many of those same Republicans are also fighting his economic stimulus proposal, arguing that it is too costly and would ultimately be ineffective, while others have attacked his plan to quicken the pace of troop withdrawals from Iraq.
The new administration has created some dilemmas of its own, as well. After Obama announced strict new lobbying limits for political appointees last week, the White House conceded it would have to issue a waiver for William J. Lynn III, a former Raytheon lobbyist who is up for a post at the Pentagon.
"Governing is a lot more complicated than campaigning," said Peter Wehner, a former Bush aide who is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. "He's the candidate who has presented himself as moving the Earth. . . . When you set those kinds of expectations, it's tough to pull them back."
Administration defenders note that Obama won election handily in November and that he has some of the highest approval ratings of any new president in modern times. With that kind of popularity, they argue, he is in a position to push for the kind of dramatic changes promised during the campaign.
Obama and his aides and have worked to tamp down expectations, especially regarding the economy. In his inaugural address, Obama warned that "the challenges we face are real" and "will not be met easily or in a short span of time."
At the same time, he also has suggested that he has no intention of lowering his sights. "There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans," Obama said during the Jan. 20 speech. "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."
In addition to his early moves on intelligence policy, the environment and the economy, Obama lifted a ban on U.S. funding for international family planning groups that perform abortions, which was first put in place by Ronald Reagan and revived by Bush. The new president also vowed to open more federal records to public scrutiny and named former U.S. senator George J. Mitchell as a special envoy for Middle East peace.
The rapid-fire actions are an early down payment on promises he made throughout his presidential campaign. As he fought his way through a bruising Democratic primary, Obama assailed Bush's economic policies as tax cuts for the wealthy, mocked the president's lack of stature around the world and hammered his response to Hurricane Katrina and his handling of the Iraq war.
In his inauguration speech, Obama obliquely referred to the "worn-out dogmas" of the Bush administration and vowed to end what he called "petty grievances and false promises." The new White House Web site includes a withering critique of Bush's "unconscionable ineptitude" in responding to Katrina, and vows to fix "broken promises" to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
The anti-Bush rhetoric helped make Obama competitive with Democratic presidential challenger Hillary Rodham Clinton, especially with the liberal wing of his party. And while many of his supporters may be expecting instant results, they are more likely to see a slow and steady push by Obama, accompanied by pleas for patience, aides said.
"I don't doubt that there are some that believe that all of this can be done overnight," Gibbs said. "My caution to them is that this will take time. But we feel good about the pace of our progress."
Obama has often tempered his soaring rhetoric with a strong doses of pragmatism. In an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors shortly before his inauguration, for example, he said he supported a bill pushed by labor groups that would make it easier to unionize workers, but acknowledged that the proposal is a political thicket that could undermine other priorities. "My focus first is on those key economic priority items," he said.
Many of Obama's clearest political challenges are coming from Capitol Hill, where the GOP minority has begun asserting itself, particularly in opposition to Democratic stimulus plans. Obama hopes to save as many as 4 million jobs by cutting taxes by a minimum of $275 billion and spending at least $545 billion on infrastructure, renewable energy production and aid to states.
During his first meeting with GOP lawmakers, on Friday, Obama rejected most of their counterproposals. But he has also signaled that he is willing to offer concessions to attract GOP support, and is scheduled to attend another round of meetings with Republican congressional leaders today.
Obama appears to be without peer among modern presidents in terms of the number of broad policy pronouncements made during his first week in office. Many Republicans also note that Obama is in a much better political position than was Bush, who entered office in 2001 after a fiercely disputed election and faced a narrowly divided Congress. Even then, Bush was able to push through a massive and controversial package of tax cuts, though he had to offer some concessions to win Democratic support.
Ari Fleischer, Bush's first press secretary, said Bush "was forced to trim his sails from the beginning" because of the political climate. "We had zero momentum going in, and never really made a break from the division of the country," he said. "Obama is in a much stronger position."