With a set of proposals that will increase federal spending to $3.7 trillion next year now on the table, policy analysts, including some Democrats, are asking whether President Obama is promising more than he can deliver and more than taxpayers can afford.
Mr. Obama came into office pledging to enact an ambitious agenda to bolster the ailling financial sector, jump-start the economy, provide health care for the uninsured, address global warming, overhaul the nation’s energy policies, save Social Security and Medicare and pour billions more into education. And that’s just for starters.
Now analysts have begun asking whether the president’s lengthy shopping list is more than Congress can handle, or whether a debt-ridden, weakened economy can bankroll all his plans without falling deeper into a financial hole.
“He has wagered his presidency on the proposition that the U.S. budget and political system can simultaneously absorb an economic stimulus, bail-outs of financial institutions, the housing sector and the automobile industry, comprehensive regulatory reform … and a social-democratic program not seen since the days of Lyndon Johnson, perhaps even Franklin D. Roosevelt,” writes William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution analyst who was President Clinton’s chief domestic adviser.
“A key question is whether the public will support, and Congress will enact, a program that relies so heavily on the capacity of the national government to serve as an effective instrument of national purpose. This is in part a question of fiscal capacity,” Mr. Galston wrote recently in the Sunday Times of London.
But whether the new administration succeeds in getting all that it wants from Congress will “depend as well on Obama’s ability to manage his agenda” and steer it through a legislative minefield on Capitol Hill, he adds.
Norman Ornstein, senior political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, has raised the question of whether Congress is “even capable of handling so many projects at once.”
Other analysts say an object lesson for the challenges Mr. Obama faces can be found in the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Reagan focused on just a few big priorities, getting the economy growing again, controlling spending and boosting the defense budget in the midst of the Cold War. Mr. Carter, on the other hand, made a “flood of proposals [that] soon had Congress bogged down in near-gridlock. By the end of his first year, America was beginning to wonder whether Carter was up to the job,” Mr. Galston said.
Thomas Mann, a Brookings presidential scholar, acknowledges “there are risks associated with a large aggressive agenda in times of economic distress.” But he thinks “public resistance is the least of the problems” facing the president.
“Voters are pleased with the president’s ambitions in taking on serious problems confronting the country. The challenge will be marshaling winning coalitions in Congress on issues requiring substantial new revenues,” Mr. Mann said.
Still, he cautions against taking an all-or-nothing approach.
“Obama is right to move on a range of issues but ultimately to settle in this first round for what he can get. To back off much of his agenda now would be to shrink his presidency and miss any opportunity for transformational change,” he said.
But there are early signs that key parts of the Obama agenda have run into resistance, in some cases from some of the president’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.