To Obama, solution lies in government

President-elect sees Washington as key to economic progress

January 09, 2009|By Peter Nicholas | Peter Nicholas,Tribune Washington Bureau

FAIRFAX, Va. -

Republican Ronald Reagan once quipped that the most "terrifying words" in the English language were: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Democrat Bill Clinton proclaimed in a State of the Union speech 13 years ago that "the era of big government is over."

But in an address here yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama said that government is the solution.

Obama's speech had a practical political purpose: coaxing lawmakers into quickly passing his sweeping stimulus plan aimed at reviving an ailing economy. But there was another message embedded in the text.

In his 17-minute talk, Obama previewed what he wants his presidency to be. Rejecting decades of rhetoric casting government as an impediment, he vowed to do more than pull the nation out of its economic downturn. His aim, he said, was for people to drive cleaner cars, study in modernized classrooms and live in buildings powered by wind and sun. The agent for transformation, he said, is government.

The president-elect told the audience at George Mason University that "only government" is capable of ending the economic downturn.

He said he would "act boldly," a phrase echoing Franklin D. Roosevelt's promise, in the teeth of the Great Depression, to pursue "bold, persistent experimentation."

"It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another," Roosevelt said in 1932. "But above all, try something."

What Obama is trying is the stimulus package. He wants it passed quickly - before Congress leaves town for its February break. The package is big, totaling nearly $800 billion. It contains tax breaks for the middle class; billions for updated bridges, roads and tunnels; and provisions to double the production of alternative energy in three years.

For the moment, Obama might find more support for his goals among the general public than on Capitol Hill. Pollsters say that with the economy sinking and joblessness on the rise, people are eager for drastic action.

Pollster John Zogby said, "The polling is very clear that what Americans want is for somebody to do something. They want problem solving and consensus building. And I think that what Obama got from this election is a pretty free hand. People are going to give him running room."

Ambitious presidential plans are often undone when they reach Congress. Lawmakers in both parties predict Obama's stimulus will pass. But even before he is sworn in, Obama is running into resistance.

Republican and Democratic members of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee met privately yesterday to discuss Obama's stimulus, the first bipartisan meeting of its sort.

Members of both parties emerged from the meeting expressing serious doubts about two elements of Obama's tax plan, one to give employers a tax credit for every job created or saved, the other to provide payroll tax relief to people who make too little to pay income taxes.

Democrats were blunt in arguing that they did not believe those measures would jolt the economy and spur businesses to hire workers.

"Why would they hire people to build things they cannot sell?" said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said misgivings over the $700 billion bailout of the financial services industry last year could make it tougher to sell the big-government initiative Obama envisions.

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