The Sunday Take

The Take: Has Obama Aimed for Too Much Change, Too Soon?

By Dan Balz
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Among the biggest decisions President Obama faced in the weeks before his inauguration were how to assess the scope of the mandate he had received from the voters and how to act on it.

It was inescapable after the troubled presidency of George W. Bush that people were ready for change. But how much and how fast were not so apparent from the election returns. Obama's decision to launch the most ambitious domestic agenda since Lyndon B. Johnson's thus became the defining decision of his presidency.

Obama is now dealing with the consequences. His approval ratings on key issues have eroded. He is battling congressional resistance to his health-care initiative. His energy bill passed the House by a narrow margin and is on hold in the Senate. His verbal misstep on the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. created an untimely distraction.

But was his strategy a mistake?

The economic collapse, which came late in the presidential campaign, offered Obama two paths. He could have argued, justifiably, that he would have to scale back his agenda, that the economy was in such a fragile state that all his attention should be focused on nursing it back to health as soon as possible.

He also could have explained that, given the amount of money the government would be pouring into the economy, the country could not afford for now a costly overhaul of health care nor an ambitious initiative to combat global warming that includes a controversial cap-and-trade system of energy taxes.

Given all the challenges Obama is facing, there are some who argue that following that path would have been more prudent. If he had moved more slowly and with a narrower focus, Obama could have nurtured his electoral majority, built greater public confidence around his leadership and emerged with a bigger mandate to pursue his postponed campaign agenda.

The second path available to Obama as he prepared to assume the presidency was to go big and bold. Rather than using the economy as an excuse for lack of action on health care and energy, he could use it as the catalyst for action. This strategy was articulated most succinctly by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who advised, "Never let a serious crisis go to waste."

Obama decided to use the economic crisis to build momentum behind a turbocharged first-year agenda. His rationale was that until the country addressed the cost and availability of health care and put itself on a path away from dependence on foreign oil, there could be no assurance of long-term economic security.

That strategy also assumed that winning could beget winning, which would strengthen Obama's hand and stiffen spines in Congress for some truly difficult votes. If voters were frustrated by gridlock in Washington, Obama would show he could make the system work.

There was also a strong case for taking this path. A crisis atmosphere might help galvanize the country and even bring Democrats and Republicans together with a sense of urgency to act. Striking quickly became attractive. Though it would tax the political skills of the new president and his team, it was ultimately more appealing.

One obvious miscalculation was in assuming there would be a measure of bipartisan cooperation. Each side blames the other for not cooperating, but the result is a more polarized environment than Obama had anticipated.

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