By unveiling his plan to rid banks of toxic assets and ease the credit flow, President Barack Obama has completed a remarkable two-month opening stage of an administration trying to cope both with enormous short-term economic problems and long-term fiscal challenges.

Along with the massive stimulus plan passed last month, measures to stabilize the housing market and a controversially large $3.6 trillion budget that seeks significant changes in health care and energy, Obama has filled in the key blanks for what is already the most activist administration in a generation.

In doing so, he has maintained his campaign pledge to tackle the government’s long-simmering fiscal problems even while taking more immediate action to cope with the current crisis.

He also has encountered predictable criticism that he seeks to do too much. Successful presidents such as Ronald Reagan had more limited legislative agendas, some say, while those who tried to do too much, for example, Jimmy Carter, achieved little.

But the times in which chief executives serve often determine what they can get done. Obama believes the economic crisis has created the climate for enacting the change for which Americans voted.

Besides, many critics basically oppose an activist government. Some fellow Democrats fear they may pay a political price for the high cost of Obama’s prescriptions, but the president retains strong public support. And he is showing he learned from history that presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan achieved their most ambitious goals in their opening months, when their public support was highest.

Even successful presidents rarely achieve everything they seek, but Obama would sacrifice the entire premise of his election if he abandoned his goals prematurely.

Now that he has detailed his proposals, the focus shifts to congressional consideration of his budget. Obama underscored its importance at a news conference March 24, calling his fiscal plan “inseparable from this recovery because it is what lays the foundation for a secure and lasting prosperity.”

With most Republicans digging in to oppose key proposals, he may well have to rely, like other recent presidents, on the budget reconciliation process. That way, he would need only a simple majority of 51 Senate Democrats to pass key initiatives and prevent the Republican minority from relying on the overused filibuster rule that lets 41 senators block legislation.

That explains why Obama followed up that session aimed at the public by going to Capitol Hill the next day to address Democratic senators on the day the two budget committees were considering his plan.

In the House, Democrats have a sufficient majority. Even if they lost 10 to 20 “blue dog” conservatives, they could pass most of his blueprint.

But in the Senate, Budget Committee chair Kent Conrad is trying to appease moderate and conservative Democrats concerned about the Obama plan, a potential problem even if only 51 votes are needed.

Conrad’s initial proposals would trim funds for extending the middle-class tax cut beyond 2010 and even some funds for Obama’s cherished health care proposals. But the president has indicated that he is open to compromise as long as enough is included to preserve his key priorities.

In the end, he has little choice but to use whatever means that best ensure their inclusion, lest he undercut his own priorities, while holding enough Democrats to pass his program.

Two factors will determine how this plays out. The first is whether a Congress that showed again recently that it’s easier to vent can look beyond the immediate, despite the risk of increasing the short-term deficit.

The second is whether the billions in new federal spending will revive the economy and whether Obama’s proposals will help bring the long-term budget deficit under control.

There’s no real way to be certain, but refusing to try seems an unwise option.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.