Obama has only himself to blame for the delay in the spending bill.

President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden meet with congressional leaders

Washington officials can’t say for sure how many people are coming to town for Barack Obama’s inauguration. Estimates have ranged from 2 million to 4 million. Perhaps the confusion lies in figuring out how many are coming to see his swearing-in and how many are lining up to get their share of the coming stimulus package.

With a price tag approaching $1 trillion, the steel companies, universities, mayors (link for subscribers only), governors, ethanol producers, and health care technology companies all want something from the “American Recoveryand Reinvestment Plan.” (Legislative titles inflate like their price tags.) This grabbiness is partially why no one in Washington is talking any more about having legislation ready for President Obama to sign on his first day in office or in the “very first days of his administration,” as his press secretary Robert Gibbs once put it. It’s now unlikely to be ready before the middle of February.

Obama is preaching urgency. He told congressional leaders Monday that he really wanted them to make that new deadline. Americans are hurting, and Congress needs to move quickly. He plans to give a speech Thursday once again outlining his plans to jump-start the economy, create jobs, and increase long-term productivity through investment in everything from schools to roads.

A politician can never go wrong urging Congress to pick up the pace, and in the Senate, where three open seats have turned into circus shows, you could see how Democratic leaders might get distracted. But if it takes awhile to put the stimulus package together, the delay is of Obama’s own doing. To produce the thoughtful, bipartisan bill he has called for, Congress will have to take some time. 

Much of the time between now and when Obama signs the bill will be spent acting out the new era of politics he has promised. Much of Obama’s popularity is based on his promises to build bridges with Republicans and change the way Washington works. Obama “really does want this to be bipartisan,” said one veteran Democratic Senate aide when I asked why Senate Democrats couldn’t just push through the Obama program quickly with their new massive majority. According to one participant in Obama’s Monday meetings with Republican leaders, he stressed that he wanted “substantial Republican votes” in support of the bill. He promised that while he wouldn’t agree with every idea, he would listen.

Republicans will have to get comfortable with the stimulus bill’s contents and find plausible explanations to offer their constituents for their yes vote. (In meetings with Obama, congressional Republican leaders said his proposal for $300 billion in tax cuts will help them make the case.) Unlike recent unpopular recent bailouts, this one is targeted toward regular people, which should make it easier for Republicans to explain. But GOP legislators don’t want to look like they’re just writing a blank check to a government that President Bush has already put into historic bloat. (Some Republican strategists argue that a symbolic fight over spending would be a useful way for Republicans to show that the party had broken with the Bush era.)

The process of winning over members in the minority party—or at least making it look like they were given a fair role in the process—will require patient negotiations and perhaps committee hearings during which Republicans are given sufficient time to ask questions and perhaps even call witnesses. If Obama wants to embrace their contributions to the bill—one of the biggest signs he’s making good on his bridge-building promises—he’ll then have to make sure he shows the same concern for the views of his fellow Democrats, like the deficit-conscious Blue Dog Democrats who want rules written into the bill that link future spending to corresponding budget cuts.

One way Obama could grease the legislation would be to allow members to fund pet projects through earmarks. But he’s said he doesn’t want to do that. Obama has promised the bill will include no earmarks. That’s an honorable position, but it creates a second problem. He’s raised the bar on the kinds of programs that will be funded by the legislation. Some of the infrastructure programs governors and mayors have suggested are “shovel ready”—meaning they have all the permits they need and are best prepared to take advantage of immediate federal dollars—aren’t technically earmarks but can sound like pork. “Part of the charge of … our budget team is to make sure that we are proceeding on projects and investments based on national priorities and not based on politics,” he said last year describing his “new way of doing business.” Figuring out how to move quickly while retaining some level of federal oversight will be complicated.

For transportation programs and other infrastructure, at least there are formulas for moving money from the Treasury into the world. Some of the other programs Obama is proposing don’t fit neatly into the existing bureaucracy. In order to make sensible decisions about rebuilding schools or expanding Internet broadband access, for example, lawmakers will have to spend some time negotiating questions such as how the programs will be implemented, who implements them, and what process states and cities go through to get funding. There will have to be conversations, negotiations, and hearings about the infrastructure that will have to be put in place to even begin funding the new infrastructure.

The challenge for Obama is not whether his stimulus package will pass. He is the most popular incoming president since Eisenhower, and he has the talent to persuade, which means he can punish his enemies and reward his friends with the public. Furthermore, the idea of a bailout that helps regular people is inherently politically appealing, so he already has the public on his side.

The legislation is going to pass. It’s how it passes that will determine whether Obama increases or diminishes the political capital he needs for his next set of tasks, which include addressing the country’s health care problems and rewiring the nation’s energy policy. Legislation of the stimulus bill’s size and complexity would be difficult under any circumstances. And Obama is trying to do more than just get his first program passed—he’s trying to create a whole new way of doing business. It’s going to take time.