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Ambitious Blueprint a Big Risk The President Is Willing to Take

A joint session of Congress listened to President Obama outline his ambitious budget goals during an address this week.
A joint session of Congress listened to President Obama outline his ambitious budget goals during an address this week. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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Can Obama put together majority coalitions to pass universal health care or a new energy policy? The prospects for health-care reform may be brighter than they were when President Bill Clinton tried unsuccessfully to enact his program in 1993-94, but Obama will still have to defeat the arm of interests and lobbyists that sank Clinton's plan. Can he win passage for a cap-and-trade energy plan that the budget says would produce more than $600 billion in revenue by 2019?

Obama will face increasing partisan opposition to major elements of his plan, even as he attempts to change the tone of political debate in Washington. But he may run into resistance from some Democrats as well, given the size of his ambitions.

Even if willing, can Congress move as swiftly as Obama would like? Axelrod said the goal in the White House is action this year on health care and movement as well on the energy plan. "There are certainly things in here that will trigger a fight," he said. "But as he said when he announced for president, change doesn't happen without a struggle. The easiest thing in Washington is to take the path of least resistance, to tinker at the margins. I think American people recognize we can't do that right now."

Beyond that are tax increases for wealthy Americans, something that Obama campaigned on but that still will require a struggle in Congress. The president not only wants to raise income tax rates for couples earning more than $250,000, but also would reduce the value of their itemized deductions and increase the capital gains tax rate.

"He signaled throughout the campaign that he would cancel some of these Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest and that we would try and add some fairness and balance back into the tax system, and that he would try and protect from additional tax increases couples who are under the $250,000 level," Axelrod said. "He's keeping that commitment."

He added that Obama also will confront the spending side of the budget. But so far, whether as a candidate or as president, he has been far less transparent about where he would make those cuts.

Up to now, Obama's greatest gifts as a politician have been his prodigious talents as an orator, which he has used to inspire the public and generate enthusiasm for his candidacy and his agenda. Those skills were on display again Tuesday night in the House chamber. But there will be as much trench warfare as high-flying rhetoric to turn his program into law. Obama is betting that he has correctly sized up the country and its tolerance for change.

That the Reagan paradigm of conservative governance has taken a beating is indisputable. But is the country ready for government activism of the size and scope he has proposed? "He's really trying to reshape the landscape economically, politically and every other way," said Pete Wehner, a Bush administration official. "If he succeeds, he may be a historic president. And if he fails, he may also be a historic president."

Obama obviously thinks the country is ready for change on a grand scale. If he has misjudged this moment, he could pay a huge price. The president has proved his skeptics wrong, but, as the new budget shows, he is now reaching higher than ever before.

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