Politics & Media

Not wasting the crisis

Pundits are sweating bullets over Obama's stimulus plan. They need to calm down.

David Brooks of The New York Times isn't a fan of the stimulus plan as currently configured:

"… they've created a sprawling, undisciplined smorgasbord, which has spun off a series of unintended consequences … The money spent on long-term domestic programs means there may not be enough to jolt the economy now (about $290 billion in spending is pushed off into 2011 and later). The money spent on stimulus, meanwhile, means there's not enough to truly reform domestic programs like health technology, schools and infrastructure. The measure mostly pumps more money into old arrangements."

Nor is William Galston, of The New Republic:

"Politics aside—and rather chillingly—the tension between the bill's short-term and long-term objectives may have produced a compromise that doesn't promote either very well."

Brooks proposes splitting the bill in two: short term and long term. Galston, former economic advisor to Bill Clinton, calls the stimulus necessary, but is uneasy about its chances.

During the recent presidential campaign, Obama made a lot of promises. From the beginning, he promised to "change politics," to reform education and healthcare, to revamp America's infrastructure, and to retake America's position as leader in global issues. As the economy worsened during the months leading up to the election, his plan to tackle the economy gradually pushed the other promises towards the back burner. Eventually, all anyone cared about was his (and McCain's) proposed economic recovery plan.

But even so, those initial campaign promises must be floating somewhere in the back of Obama's mind, looming as both potential problems and political opportunities. If he doesn't follow through on his promises, Democrats stand to lose ground in 2010, and Obama is surely already thinking about his reelection campaign in 2012.

Politically, the current economic crisis is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it hamstrings Obama from immediately initiating a legislative agenda centered on his campaign promises. But on the other, it provides him political cover to include bits and pieces of his overarching legislative agenda into the economic stimulus itself. The economic stimulus as it's currently configured seems to be both an economic quick fix and a broader attempt to implement Obama's agenda.

So when people like David Brooks and William Galston note with anxiety that the stimulus plan is unfocused, what they probably mean is that there is too much mixing of immediate economic remedies and long-term political goals.

But from Obama's standpoint, the opportunity to cash in on popular goodwill must be impossible to ignore. His overwhelming support amongst Americans won't last forever, and the opportunity might never come again. As his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, told the Wall Street Journal, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

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