The Has-been

Every Breath You Take

Obama’s job is hard enough without making him be the next FDR, too.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

As if his superb address to the joint session of Congress weren’t impressive enough, President Obama has demonstrated yet another remarkable talent—the power to make supporters, opponents, and impartial observers alike stop breathing. John Harris and Jonathan Martin of Politico noted Obama’s “breathtakingly ambitious vision.” Nina Easton of Fortune called it a “breathlessly ambitious agenda.”USA Today described Obama’s budget as “breathtaking in scope,” while James Pethokoukis of U.S. News called it “an absolutely breath-taking attempt at reengineering the entire American economy.” None could top the Houston Chronicle, which earlier called the scale of Obama’s stimulus package “breathtaking—almost biblical.”

Although the economic plagues he confronts seem almost biblical, it’s not fair to tag Obama with epic ambition for simply setting out to solve the problems he inherited. The challenges he faces are breathtakingly difficult, to be sure. But Obama isn’t trying to be Man on Wire. On the contrary, he’s doing everything he can to calm a nation that’s too scared to look down.

By the sprawling standards of most State of the Union addresses, in fact, the scope of Obama’s speech to the joint session was narrowly focused on the economic crisis and four domestic priorities central to economic prosperity: health care, energy, education, and long-term fiscal responsibility. The to-do list he gave Congress is bold but short: Pass a health reform bill, a cap-and-trade bill, and an ambitious budget. As a way to warm up for those tough three-point shots, he offered Congress an easy slam dunk: the bipartisan national service bill he and McCain both endorsed last September.

While issues like health care and energy pose enormous political hurdles, they’re not riverboat gambles. In both areas, Congress and the administration will have to balance a dizzying array of competing regional, economic, and political interests. But cap-and-trade—which has broad support from much of American industry, is already in place across the industrial world, and in 2008 had the enthusiastic support of both parties’ presidential nominees—is hardly a breathtaking risk. Health care reform has always been the Middle East of domestic policy, but like the Middle East, America can’t simply ignore it, do nothing, and hope it goes away.

Obama’s central focus—the economy—is a matter of unpleasant inheritance, not ambition. The economic recovery package was not cheap, but it was designed to prevent private employers and state and local governments from shrinking in the short term, not intrude in the private economy or expand the federal government in the long run. Salvaging the banking and automotive industries is extraordinarily complex, and perhaps for some companies may prove impossible. But no administration, Republican or Democrat, could have walked away from either challenge as too ambitious.

Obama has put forward sound, sensible proposals to make the American economy more competitive in the long run, from creating green jobs to making America first in college graduates again. The president isn’t attempting to remake the private economy; he’s just trying to get it going again and placing some smart, safe bets on our economic future.

Frankly, we’re not doing Obama any favors by insisting that the hurdles he is determined to surmount are breathtaking proof of what today’s Washington Post called “the breadth of his aspiration.” For different reasons, congressional Republicans and some Democrats have a common objective—to turn Obama into the second coming of FDR and his agenda into the grandson of the New Deal. Clearly, that doesn’t make much sense for Republicans over the long haul, because if they insist on seeing Obama’s agenda that way, they’ll be forced to make the same mistake they made in the 1930s and reflexively oppose it.

But given the choice, Democrats would be far wiser to see Obama as the first pragmatic president of the 21st century rather than the first big New Dealer since Roosevelt. FDR himself would have been the last one to boast of breathtaking ambitions. He spent most of his time reassuring people that he was taking measured steps to help them breathe easier.

To his credit, Obama is steering his own course. He has absorbed valuable lessons from FDR’s leadership in a time of crisis. His address to Congress was a triumphant, comforting fireside chat. Like FDR, who hired journalists to report back to him on whether his programs were actually working, Obama has turned to his vice president, a team of ombudsmen, and the wisdom of crowds to prevent mistakes that would undermine confidence in his overall agenda. But he has also learned an important lesson from his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, not to dare the country to measure him by the sheer boldness of his ambition, when in the end results are all that matters.

If Washington is out of breath, that’s mainly because it’s out of shape after the last few years. A president’s job is to solve problems and convince Congress that its job is to solve problems, too. Restoring faith in the financial system, curbing the cost of health care, making a dent in carbon emissions, and asking young people to graduate from college aren’t signs of Obama’s breathless ambition. They’re just a welcome promise to show up for work and a challenge to others to do the same. For Obama’s sake, we should all do our part—and keep breathing.