Tuesday, January 13, 2009


President-elect Barack Obama has boldly urged rapid approval of his $775 billion economic-rescue plan, while new government figures released Friday showed the U.S. economy lost 524,000 jobs last month, with more than 11 million Americans now out of work.

Mr. Obama hit the ground running Thursday when he opened the legislative battle to get his emergency stimulus package passed by Congress. Mr. Obama was bold in a traditional way when he gave a speech at George Mason University in Fairfax, urging Congress to move fast on his giant stimulus package to fight the growing economic recession, the worst the United States has seen in more than 70 years.

The jobless rate is now 7.2 percent, the worst in 15 years. Some 2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008.

Mr. Obama recognized the gravity of the crisis and, therefore, did not even wait until his inauguration on Jan. 20 to devote an entire speech to the challenge and his intended response to it. By contrast, President Bush did not devote a single, entire speech to financial and economic affairs for virtually his entire presidency. He was only forced to give one after the catastrophic fiscal meltdown wiped out most of the major investment banks on Wall Street in September.

Since then, Mr. Bush has been conspicuous by his absence from any activist or leadership role in grappling with the crisis. His passivity in such times has been unprecedented and contrasts even with Republican President Herbert Hoover, who stayed in the public eye to his last hours in office in 1933 with his efforts to enact and enforce repeated - and entirely unsuccessful - activist measures to fight the Great Depression.

Mr. Obama has not challenged Mr. Bush’s policies on the Gaza crisis. But he has not applied that same “only one president at a time” principle when it comes to the domestic U.S. economy. In this area, the president-elect is clearly acting presidential - and the White House and Republicans generally are not complaining.

There is no precedent for this in modern times. Abraham Lincoln was later faulted for being too passive during the crucial months during his transition period in 1860-61 when the Southern states were seceding from the Union to form the Confederacy. And in 1933, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt was reviled by Mr. Hoover because he refused to endorse Mr. Hoover’s policies. Yet Mr. Bush has remained entirely silent and has been, if anything, supportive of Mr. Obama’s assumption of a leadership role in the current crisis.

This passivity has been entirely consistent with Mr. Bush’s initial reaction to many previous crises, and it also reflects his lack of interest in any serious economic policy-making beyond slashing taxes, running up record deficits and keeping interest rates virtually permanently at record lows through most of his two terms in office.

Mr. Obama’s speech was typical Obama, trying to educate, reassure and persuade at the same time, setting his pitch in a broad context, with a moral component, and applying some rhetorical flourishes. In these qualities, it reflected not so much President John F. Kennedy, whom Mr. Obama has widely acknowledged as his personal hero, but Franklin Roosevelt, in his classic speeches and radio broadcasts during the 1930s.

However, impressive as the speech was, the devil is in the details. And the details insofar as Mr. Obama provided them - and the speech was thin on specifics - are not playing too well with senior Democrats in Congress.

The speech was accompanied by an intense lobbying campaign, with Obama aides meeting Democrats on the Hill. But while Mr. Obama recognizes the importance of having his economic package enacted as soon as possible after he takes office on Jan. 20, top leaders of his own party are dragging their feet.

Skepticism about aspects of the package has come from more liberal leaders of the party, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Tom Harkin of Iowa and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

In particular, they are all unhappy about the proposed tax cuts and credits. They argue that people fearful of losing their jobs are more likely to save a tax refund than go on a spending spree with it, and they complain about the job credits for employers making new hires.

Mr. Obama remains hopeful of bipartisan support for his rescue package, but Republicans are skeptical of the Keynesian “spend your way out of recession” approach, given last week’s unexpectedly large deficit prediction from the Congressional Budget Office of $1.2 trillion.

In other words, Mr. Obama’s campaign message of “hope and change” is about to collide head-on with the slow, cautious, fussy, wheeling-and-dealing legislative process on Capitol Hill.

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