Obama’s Alarm Call

The president-elect makes the urgent case for his stimulus bill.

How does a leader known for his equanimity convey a sense of panic? This was part of Barack Obama’s task Thursday as he delivered the most presidential speech he can give without having the official seal. Unless Congress acts within the next few weeks on his economic stimulus package, he said, “Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.”

It was a governing speech by a man who is not yet (technically, at least) governing. And in giving it, Obama gave us clues not just about how he will handle Congress but also about whether he can use his own popularity to bring about the change he’s promised.

Obama tried to justify the bill’s huge price tag to the American public by conveying a sense of the enormous stakes, and he was attempting to pressure members of Congress to move quickly. The deadline for the bill has already slipped as the realities of moving such an enormous piece of legislation through Congress take hold. Though Obama aides once hoped he would have a bill to sign within days of his inauguration, they now hope Congress will act before it leaves for its February recess.

For a president who has repeatedly promised an entirely new way of doing business in Washington, Obama’s address had a deep familiarity: Doom was its central and recurring message. Obama promised that the stimulus bill would embody his new approach, yet in pitching it, he mirrored the all the usual messages we’ve heard from Washington in the last half year: Unless the federal government acts quickly and boldly (and expensively), the roof is going to cave in.

People have rightly learned to grow suspicious of big, complicated legislation enacted quickly. “It’s the George Bush problem all over again,” said one think tank veteran who largely approves of the legislation. Not even those working on the legislation think that a bill produced as quickly as Obama and Democratic leaders want can also be as free from political self-interest or simple sloppiness as they claim.

Obama recognizes that people have heard his message before, and he knows they are skeptical about government action. “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth,” he said, “but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe.” The urgency of the moment made the declaration feel definitive, like Reagan’s declaration in 1981 that “government is the problem” or Clinton’s claim in 1996 that the “era of big government is over.”

Unlike President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and congressional leaders—who have all made similar broad claims for bold government action—Obama is popular enough to actually stand a chance of being successful. The question is whether he can lend some of his popularity to improve the government’s battered image. People have lost faith in Washington institutions, and while they trust Obama, we don’t know how much they’ll transfer that trust onto the messy institutions he’s relying on to carry out his plans. For the moment, the polls look good for the incoming president. In a Politico/Allstate survey, 73 percent support it. In a Gallup poll, 53 percent support the plan while 36 percent oppose it.  

One way Obama hopes to purchase some faith is by promising transparency. He repeated his call that the bill include no special projects and promised the legislation would be online and searchable so people could determine if their money is being spent wisely. If people believe the process is honest, say Obama aides, then they’ll have faith it will bring results.

As we watch the president-elect try to graft his popularity onto Washington institutions, we’re also watching how he exerts pressure on those institutions. “The message to Congress was, ‘Watch out,’ ” said one Washington policy veteran, approvingly, after watching the speech. Obama allowed that there should be “open and honest discussion” about the legislation, but he doesn’t expect it to last very long. Since he has proclaimed quick action will happen only if members of Congress “trade old habits for a new responsibility,” the obvious conclusion seemed to be that delay will mean Congress is incapable of acting responsibly. Opposition was framed as finger-pointing and foot-dragging. It was hard to find room in the speech for substantive opposition of the kind Republicans and Democrats have offered to his tax proposals.

Congress appears to have gotten the message. Both Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have promised to keep Congress in session through its February recess if the stimulus package isn’t completed. If everything goes really well, maybe Obama will get to sign it on Feb. 16, Presidents Day—a fittingly dramatic moment for the first successful use of his power.