The size of the gamble that President Barack Obama is taking every day is simply staggering. What came through in his speech to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night was a dramatic reminder of the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table in his first month in office, putting at risk the future well-being of the country and the Democratic Party’s control of Washington.
It was also, and even more significantly, a measure of the degree to which he has taken personal responsibility for delivering on one of the most ambitious agendas any newly inaugurated president has ever announced.
Most politicians, facing an economic crisis as deep as this one – the threatened collapse of the job market and manufacturing, retail and credit systems here at home, along with the staggering, unprecedented costs of the attempted rescue efforts – would happily postpone tackling anything else.
But not Obama.
Instead, no sooner had he finished describing his plans for spurring economic recovery and shoring up the crippled automotive and banking industries, he was off to the races, outlining his ambitions for overhauling energy, health care and education.
The House chamber was filled with veteran legislators who have spent decades wrestling with each of those issues. They know how maddeningly difficult it has been to cobble together a coalition large enough to pass a significant education, health care or energy bill.
And here stood Obama, challenging them to do all three, at a time when trillions of borrowed dollars already have been committed to short-term economic rescue schemes and when new taxes risk stunting any recovery.
Is he naive? Does he not understand the political challenge he is inviting?
His response to the doubters on both sides of the aisle who think (at least to themselves) that Obama is trying to do too much was to assert that passivity is not an option. “And I refuse to let that happen.”
The White House had signaled before the speech that Obama planned to strike a more upbeat note than he had in his recent campaigning for the stimulus bill. He did that at the top of the speech, saying, “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”
That is presidential boilerplate, the kind of thing White House speechwriters can deliver whenever things look bleak and you have to rally the troops.
But Obama was not content to leave it at that. Buoyed for now by his victories over Hillary Clinton and John McCain, by his soaring approval scores and by a Republican opposition whose incoherence was demonstrated by the reply from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Obama is clearly of a mind to strike while the iron is hot.
His mindset is somewhat reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s in 1981, recognizing that the Democrats’ self-confidence had been shattered by his victory and the door was therefore open for him to enact more of the conservative agenda than any Republican in 50 years.
Reagan could do that in part because he was unchallenged on the Republican side of the aisle and he had the only program that counted.
The risk to Obama’s ambitions is likely to arise less from the defeated Republicans than from the victorious Democrats, who have all too many ideas of their own about what should be done in energy, health care and education.
And the other risk is in what he barely mentioned Tuesday: the rest of the world. Obama has just ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, a country with a staggering government and a shaky neighbor in Pakistan, where the United States is still searching for a plausible strategy.
The world provides no respite for an American president, especially one already as burdened as this one.
When we elected Obama, we didn’t know what a gambler we were getting.
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