Too soon to be disappointed with Obama

Politics

December 30, 2008|By PAUL WEST

Washington - Barack Obama won the presidency just last month, and some supporters think he's already forgotten why.

In the view of his critics on the left, Obama - once rated the most liberal member of the Senate - is reinventing himself as a pragmatic moderate as he prepares to take office and making foolish decisions in an effort to broaden his appeal.

These critics reacted sharply when he selected a gay-marriage opponent, the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, to give the invocation at the inauguration. One of the milder rebukes came from Kathryn Kolbert, president of the liberal group People for the American Way, who expressed "grave disappointment" over the president-elect's choice.

The angry buzz from liberals grew so loud that Obama's deputy national campaign manager was compelled to scold left-wing Democrats for drawing critical conclusions about Obama's appointees, among them, a surprising number of Clinton administration veterans.

"After all, he was elected to be the president of all the people - not just those on the left," Steve Hildebrand wrote on Huffington Post, a popular liberal Web site.

As if to confirm liberals' worst fears, conservative evangelist Pat Robertson recently said he sees "the makings of a great president" in Obama. He told CNN that he's "remarkably pleased with Obama" and praised his middle-of-the road Cabinet picks, which include President George W. Bush's defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.

But not all liberals think the dust-ups over Warren and Robertson represent serious problems for Obama. And some say the way he's developing his approach to the economic crisis is far more telling in terms of his coming presidency.

One person who is unusually well-positioned to provide a reality check on the question of whether Obama has abandoned his liberal leanings is Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group.

Unknown outside Washington's power circles, the former Carter administration official is regarded as perhaps the most influential lobbyist in the nation on behalf of poor and moderate-income Americans. His group's clout has been compared to that of AARP for older Americans and organized labor on behalf of workers.

Beside his reputation, Greenstein brings two other qualifications to the debate: personal experience as a member of Bill Clinton's transition team after the 1992 election, and close ties to key Obama White House aides, including budget director Peter Orszag and economic adviser Jason Furman.

In an interview at his Capitol Hill office, Greenstein said he's impressed with the way Obama is tackling the economic crisis, including details that have escaped public notice up to now.

He said he was amazed to learn that senior Bush administration officials had effectively turned over the staff of the president's budget office to a "shadow" budget office created by Obama. Career professionals at the Office of Management and Budget rigorously scrubbed the costs of the Obama stimulus package, item by item, almost as if Obama were already president.

As a result of that review, Greenstein said, there is a much greater chance that Congress will be able to place a recovery plan on Obama's desk shortly after he takes office.

"This is, I think, unprecedented," he said. "I did not think one could pull this off this early."

Obama's team, he said, stuck to two key principles in putting a package together: Only proposals that could quickly stimulate the economy were included, and new spending plans that might be viewed as longer-term initiatives - rather than temporary ones - were rejected.

In more than three decades in Washington, Greenstein said, he has never seen such a broad consensus develop, across the political spectrum, on the need for a huge injection of new government spending to help the economy recover.

But when the Obama team added up all the "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects and other initiatives proposed as part of the stimulus package, "they discovered, to their dismay, that the number was nowhere near" the roughly $1 trillion target set by some economists for an overall recovery plan.

Obama has declined to put a public price tag on his proposal, but published reports have put the figure at slightly less than $800 billion over two years.

Greenstein said he is "not in the ranks of the people who are unhappy" that Obama seems to be stocking his administration with too many moderates, and he dismisses some of that criticism as the result of overly simplistic and often misleading political labeling.

Obama, in his view, has selected knowledgeable advisers who are taking into consideration "the situation of people who are in the toughest shape" economically, while at the same time recognizing that the country faces serious long-term fiscal problems that must be addressed.

"It seems to me that he inherits probably the toughest set of problems of any new president since FDR," Greenstein said. Obama seems to have the self-confidence to manage a highly talented team of strong personalities.

"Even more important, I really get a sense of a kind of iron discipline to deal with all these big problems at the same time.

"I'm sure as time goes forward, there will be things they do that I have questions about," he said. "But in terms of what's happened so far, I'm quite impressed."

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