- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

ANALYSIS:

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.

Democratic leaders last week were forced to significantly modify parts of the administration’s cap-and-trade energy bill because they said it did not have enough votes to pass the bill-writing committee. Even with those changes, analysts say the revenue-raising bill - which Mr. Obama is counting on to help pay for his health care reforms and tax cuts - faces a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Lawmakers of both parties have said the president’s proposals to cap tax deductions for charitable giving and home mortgage interest are “dead on arrival,” further depriving him of funds for health care reform.

On yet another front, Mr. Obama admitted last week he did not have the votes to pass the so-called “card check” bill that would make it easier to unionize businesses and that it will have to undergo major revisions to win more support.

Despite the setbacks, many Democrats still argue it is better to ask Congress for too much than for not enough.

“I don’t buy the ‘too much on the plate’ argument,” said Alice Rivlin who was Mr. Clinton’s budget director. “I think the Obama team is right to move ahead on health care and the environmental issues, even as they work to get the economy back on track. I would like to see them tackle Social Security and tax reform, too.”

She added, “The Carter analogy doesn’t work. He didn’t try to do too much, he just didn’t do it very skillfully and the public wasn’t ready for, say, health reform. Obama stands a better chance, partly because of the recession.”

But spending critics say that Mr. Obama’s sharply higher spending and borrowing will mean historic levels of debt that would hurt the government’s financial standing and require much higher taxes on businesses and workers.

“The president’s short-term plan to pay for his agenda is to dump $74,000 per household of new debt onto the laps of our children and grandchildren. Taxpayers cannot even pay for the commitments we already have made for Social Security and Medicare, and yet he wants to add trillions of dollars in additional spending on top of that,” said Brian Riedl, chief budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The centrist-leaning Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has similar concerns.

“At the end of the day, his numbers don’t add up,” said Marc Goldwein, policy director for the budget watchdog group. “They want to do everything and it’s just not realistic.”

“We’re in a pretty big [deficit] hole now. He has to make decisions on what proposals he has to keep and what proposals he has to abandon, and what proposals he can modify,” Mr. Goldwein said.

Yet polls show that a majority of Americans are not concerned with the size of Mr. Obama’s agenda or its cost - at least not yet.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 34 percent of those surveyed say Mr. Obama is trying to deal with too many issues, and 56 percent said he is doing about the right amount.

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