Saturday, November 29, 2008

Jump-Starting the Obama Presidency

President Elect Barack Obama introduced four new members of his economic team, Timothy F. Geithner, Christina Romer, Lawrence Summers and Melody Barnes, at the Chicago Hilton Towers in downtown Chicago.
President Elect Barack Obama introduced four new members of his economic team, Timothy F. Geithner, Christina Romer, Lawrence Summers and Melody Barnes, at the Chicago Hilton Towers in downtown Chicago.
Forget for now the way Inauguration Days have unfolded in the past. Jan. 20, 2009, could turn out to be a very different kind of swearing in.

Sometime around noon that day, Barack Obama will stand before millions of people on the west front of the Capitol, put his hand on the Bible and promise to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Then after delivering his Inaugural Address, the 44th President may step inside the Capitol and sign the lead elements of a two-year, $1 trillion economic-stimulus package, the largest ever fiscal booster shot in peacetime. Never mind all the familiar chatter about a new President's first 100 days; Obama's first 100 hours could break some records.

The Obama era, it is now clear, began on Election Day and will not wait. Like his presidential campaign, his transition is proving to be historic. Unwilling to bide his time until President Bush packs up his things and leaves town, Obama simply took control of economic policy on Nov. 23, when he unveiled an economic team noted for its brains and experience and asked it to come up with a massive economic-stimulus plan, in the hopes of rushing it through Congress and readying it for him to sign by the time he is sworn in. The next day, he launched a pre-emptive strike against the bloated federal budget, noting that some recipients of federal farm subsidies are millionaires who no longer need relief. Taken together, his bold moves heralded the fastest start by a President-elect in memory and one of the most dramatic takeovers ever. "I think it is very important for the American people to have clarity that we don't intend to stumble into the next Administration," Obama said Tuesday.

Obama no longer has the luxury of waiting. In the past two weeks alone, General Motors announced it has only three months of cash left before it will run out of money, and the Federal Government was forced to rush to halt a shareholder run on the giant banking conglomerate Citigroup. Unemployment has risen to 6.5% and is expected to hit 8% by next year, if not higher. Some economists predict that gross domestic product will shrink at a 5% annual pace in the fourth quarter and perhaps 3% or 4% in the first three months of next year as a result of a squelching of credit by banks and a crushing plunge in consumer spending. Those factors have convinced Obama that if he is going to have any sort of presidency worth its name, he must take decisive action now. "With our economy in distress," Obama said, "we cannot hesitate, and we cannot delay."

Even so, a recession is under way. The goal now, said economist and Obama aide Austan Goolsbee, is to prevent a depression. Obama also sees in the current mess a rare confluence of both crisis and opportunity that gives him the chance to remake the U.S. economy. After months in which members of his own party wondered how Obama could keep all his promises in a single term, he is now setting the stage to attempt far more in his first year in office than seemed likely just a month ago. "We're coming in," noted Goolsbee, "with a bang."


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