The Note, 3/9/09: Full Plates: Flurries of Action Bring Risk -- But Promise Momentum For Team Obama


President Obama is starting just about every week of his presidency like he’s not getting a second trip to the buffet. (And he might not.)

He could be trying to do too much too soon. Washington is overstuffed with action, and the president is right that there is little luxury in doing all the things he is trying to do, all at once.

But there’s a flipside to doing just about everything and doing it promptly: It means doing enough to make plenty of people happy. More significantly, it signals action at a time where the public wants to see its government moving.

There’s a calculation here that makes “all-in” not quite as bad a bet as it might otherwise seem. It gives the opposition plenty of opportunities to say “no” -- and may set patterns that will make it harder for Republicans to start saying “yes.”

The broader construct -- that a popular president is acting, with or without (and it’s mainly without) the cooperation of the GOP -- is taking shape, with thanks to the Obama message machine.

“The American people want you to take on big issues,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel tells The New York Times’ John Harwood. “It’s only Washington that says, ‘You’re going too fast.’ ”

Writes Harwood: “Surmounting reservations of philosophy represents only part of Mr. Obama’s challenge. Another is the sheer volume of what the president has asked lawmakers to digest.”

Republicans may or may not be rooting for Obama to fail, but they don’t have to apologize at Rush’s altar to risk being cast in the just-say-no mold. (How fine is the line between saying banks should be allowed to fail and looking like you support the notion?)

Fresh action this week includes Iraq troop withdrawals, a national-service plan moving its way through Congress, and a stem-cell research executive order, to be signed Monday at 11:45 am ET at the White House.

And, with the delayed omnibus finally moving through the Senate, we’ll be back on the economy before Tony Perkins can say “snowflake baby.”

For Obama, one emerging theme is that he had no choice but to move, and fast.

Is he even moving fast enough? “Many economists, myself included, actually argued that the plan was too small and too cautious. The latest data confirm those worries -- and suggest that the Obama administration’s economic policies are already falling behind the curve,” Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times column. “There’s a real, growing danger that it will never catch up.”

The just-right diagnosis: “He doesn't want precipitous action in the midst of an economic collapse to come back to haunt us all. But sometimes excessive caution can be as dangerous as impetuousness,” E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column. “The president has no choice but to be bold. If there is one thing he should fear, it is fear itself.”

For his critics, too predictable? “Most of the carping is either irresponsible -- a business news cable network demagogically sought to frighten people -- or the same old stale alternatives: more tax cuts for the wealthy, smaller government and more deregulation. It’s as if the last eight years have been expunged,” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt writes in his column. “That’s why [Rush] Limbaugh has emerged as such a force and why prominent Republicans beg for his blessing.”

Monday’s messaging (as rolled out deftly on Friday): “President Obama will sign an executive order Monday lifting limits on human embryonic stem cell research and will direct federal agencies to ‘restore scientific integrity’ to decision-making, White House aides said Sunday,” Dan Vergano writes for USA Today.

The decision will be cast as “part of a wider move to return scientific integrity to policy-making,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Monday.

And setting up Congress for more action: “While lifting the Bush administration’s restrictions on federally financed human embryonic stem cell research, President Obama intends to avoid the thorniest question in the debate: whether taxpayer dollars should be used to experiment on embryos themselves,” The New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports.

On national service, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter reports that Congress is ready to act: “By early April, Obama will sign landmark legislation expanding AmeriCorps from 75,000 participants to 250,000 over the next few years,” Alter writes. “This will take the national-service movement to a new level, create thousands of jobs and help young Americans pay for college. It's another sign that the president and his allies on Capitol Hill intend to redeem the promise of last year's campaign a helluva lot earlier than even his most ardent supporters expected.”

Is it “circuit overload,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asks: “President Barack Obama has been on the job less than seven weeks, but already he has proposed sweeping changes -- a $787-billion stimulus package, the beginning of a bank plan, improvements in information technology, a cap-and-trade system to cut global warming, and a down payment on health care reform. Some in Washington wonder if he is taking on too much, too fast.”

“Obama . . . is in a race between the desire to use that capital, fueled by public-approval ratings at 60 percent, and a still-deteriorating economy that has seen the Dow Jones Industrial Average drop more than 1,300 points since his inauguration. The risk is that his efforts prove to be too much, too soon, leading to a backlash that erodes his current support,” Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman and Michael Tackett write.

So much depends on the economy -- and the president has gotten that message: “I don’t think that people should be fearful about our future,” Obama told The New York Times. “I don’t think that people should suddenly mistrust all of our financial institutions.”

The argument for trying to do too much: “The first seven weeks of the Obama administration have been a gusher of major policy initiatives with huge price tags, one after the other. Change, as expressed in the opening days of this presidency, is more whiplash revolution than incremental policy building,” Julie Mason writes for the Washington Examiner.

On how to get it done: “President Obama is facing misgivings about his policy agenda from inside his own party, with prominent Democrats objecting to parts of his taxation and spending plans and questioning the White House push to do so much so fast,” Peter Nicholas writes in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. “Obama's party is peppered with legislators from conservative districts who are wary of a budget proposal that includes tax increases and deficit spending, even if tax cuts are also part of the plan. . . . Complicating matters, Obama is asking the political system in Washington to absorb a slew of legislation and policy shifts rivaling what President Franklin D. Roosevelt put forward 76 years ago. Going all in, in poker terms, puts a strain on a legislative system accustomed to a more incremental approach.” 

A reminder that the stimulus battle is far from over: “As tens of billions of dollars in stimulus funds begin to flow across the country, states and federal agencies are gripped by disputes over whether the money is being used in ways that violate the letter or spirit of the legislation, battles that raise new questions about precisely what the intent of the legislation was and that threaten to delay the infusion of funds into the staggering economy,” Alec MacGillis writes in The Washington Post.

“Debates over the law's intent are also taking place within federal agencies. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar instructed his division chiefs last month to focus their spending on renewable-energy projects. This took some of them aback, because the law lays out clearly what the money is to be spent on -- things such as reclaiming abandoned mines, maintaining trails and upgrading volcano-monitoring equipment,” MacGillis writes.

Not enough? “President Barack Obama offered his domestic-policy proposals as a ‘break from a troubled past.’ But the economic outlook now is more troubled than it was even in January, despite Obama's bold rhetoric and commitment of more trillions of dollars,” the AP’s Tom Raum reports.

And the budget battle has barely begun: “Barack Obama is a great pretender,” Robert J. Samuelson writes in his Newsweek column. “He constantly says he's doing things that he isn't, and he relies on his powerful rhetoric to obscure the difference. He has made ‘responsibility’ a personal theme, and the budget's cover line is ‘A New Era of Responsibility.’ He claims that the budget begins ‘making the tough choices necessary to restore fiscal discipline.’ It doesn't.”

Not to mention the omnibus: “The bill is laden with earmarks for parochial projects that candidate Obama denounced as wasteful, politicized spending, and that have slowed approval of the bill in the Senate, where Republicans have attacked earmarks even as many in the GOP have benefited from them,” the Los Angeles Times’ Janet Hook writes. “Among Democrats, the bill has set off new concerns and thrown the party on the defensive about the overall level of federal spending -- the cost of this bill plus the $787-billion stimulus package and billions more to help homeowners and to revive the financial system.”

Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., to McClatchy’s David Lightman: “Do people understand the nuances of the legislative process? Probably not. But do they understand when we say the budget is going up 8 percent? Then they ask questions.”

On the banks -- the new GOP talking point: Let the bad ones fail. “I don't want to nationalize them, I think we need to close them,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week.” “Close them down, get them out of business.  If they're dead, they ought to be buried,” he said. “We bury the small banks; we've got to bury some big ones and send a strong message to the market. And I believe that people will start investing [again] in banks.”

“I don't think they've made the tough decisions,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on “Fox News Sunday.” “Some of these banks have to fail.”

And on automakers: “House Republican leader John Boehner said Sunday he doesn't support handing over more federal money to keep General Motors afloat unless the automaker develops a viable and long-term business model and can pay back government loans,” per the AP. Boehner, on “Face the Nation”: “Anything short of that is just throwing good money after bad.”

Wall Street Journal editorial you don’t see very often: “Obama Channels Cheney.” “Anyone interested in President Obama's actual executive-power policies . . . should look at his position on warrantless wiretapping. Dick Cheney must be smiling. . . . The Obama Justice Department has adopted a legal stance identical to, if not more aggressive than, the Bush version. It argues that the court-forced disclosure of the surveillance programs would cause ‘exceptional harm to national security’ by exposing intelligence sources and methods.”

Who’s enjoying this fight? Yet one more Rush Limbaugh ad, from the left:

Civil war on the right. David Frum really doesn’t like the GOP’s chances in this battle: “On the one side, the president of the United States: soft-spoken and conciliatory, never angry, always invoking the recession and its victims,” he writes for Newsweek. “And for the leader of the Republicans? A man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as ‘losers.’ ”

Donna Brazile agrees that this isn’t a fair fight: “As this two-ring circus unfolds further between Mr. Limbaugh and the GOP, Democrats should remain seated and silent, safe in the bleachers. Why fire your gun again when the first shot caused your opponents to form a circular firing squad?” she writes in the Washington Times.

Profile time: “Behind a president defined more by his oratory than any political figure in a generation is chief speechwriter Jon Favreau, whose work with Obama began soon after the Illinois senator arrived in Washington four years ago and who knows the president's ideas and rhythms so well that Obama has called him a mind-reader,” Mike Dorning writes in the Chicago Tribune. “The White House denied a request for an interview with Favreau. But aides said Obama's speeches often begin with the president dictating his thoughts to Favreau and the speechwriter shaping them into a draft that is then passed back and forth between the two men.”

The New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny takes on David Axelrod: “It is known as the Wednesday Night Meeting, an invitation-only session for a handful of advisers, nearly all of whom played a key role in paving Mr. Obama’s path to the Oval Office. The location varies, but on a recent evening Mr. Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, was feeling under the weather, so a group that he says is ‘like family to me’ met at his place,” Zeleny writes. “The two-hour sessions are just one way in which Mr. Axelrod is making the transition from Chicago political consultant to the White House. His title does little to capture his full importance to Mr. Obama. His voice, and political advice, carry more weight than most anyone else’s on the president’s payroll.”

(And Favreau was allowed to speak on-the-record about Axelrod, and Axelrod could speak about himself and about Favreau, but Favreau couldn’t speak about Favreau?)

Politico’s Michael Calderone looks at Team Obama’s efforts to shape opinion-makers’ opinions before (and after) they offer them. And: “[Bill] Burton said to expect more such meetings in the future, including a presidential sit-down with prominent bloggers,” Calderone reports.

The Kicker:

“Happy birthday, dear Teddy.” -- President Obama, singing, in a surprise appearance at the Kennedy Center, to honor Sen. Ted Kennedy

“I never thought I'd be in a room with so many senators.” -- Caroline Kennedy, honoring her uncle.

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