Clift: Can Obama Deliver on His Promises?

The prospective appointment of television's sexiest doctor, Sanjay Gupta, as Surgeon General, with a dual White House post to help shape health policy rounds out a storied administration of big intellects and personalities. Anybody who's watched CNN knows the 39-year-old heartthrob with enviable communication skills in addition to being a practicing neurosurgeon on the faculty of Emory University. And unlike some previous surgeons general, Gupta wouldn't slide into obscurity, content with the honor of it all.

Then there's Hillary Clinton and Larry Summers, doers not theoreticians, eager to leave their stamp on policy. Former Senate leader Tom Daschle, soft-spoken but turf conscious, gets an office in the White House in addition to heading the Health and Human Services Department. Energy policy, once the province of Dick Cheney and the oil companies, will come under the watchful eye of former EPA head and Al Gore acolyte, Carol Browner, in a newly created White House post that encompasses energy, the environment and a major push to address global warming. It's as though President-elect Obama is instituting in a flowchart the cross currents and tensions that FDR achieved through ad hoc trial and error.

It all seems so heady in terms of the progressive policies that might emerge that on the eve of the Inauguration, with millions of people pouring into Washington for the historic transition of power, we should take a moment to curb our enthusiasm. After all, Obama hasn't done anything yet. He's touching America's heartstrings with his young family and his good-government promises of a legislative process free of bridges to nowhere, a budget so transparent you can Google where every dollar goes, and a bipartisanship so magnanimous that out-of-power Republicans receive a respectful hearing. "Let me give you a metaphor," says William Galston, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. "Obama has built a beautiful machine in the shop. We don't know how it works until he takes it out for a spin."

Galston doesn't doubt that Obama will work well with each of the strong-minded and accomplished people he's bringing into government, but how well will they work with each other? Can a Congress steeped in its own petty prerogatives change its ways for the new kid in town?

Obama has a fondness for czars and special niches created with overlapping lines of authority. Only one thing is certain: all roads lead to Obama. He's putting himself at the center of everything. He's the visionary and the idea man and the chief salesman and he is surrounding himself with people who know how to work the levers of government. The eye-popping announcement that the deficit this year will reach $1.2 trillion means the new president will have to work that much harder to convince the American people that adding another $800 billion of debt with his economic stimulus plan is the right course.

Galston cautions that Obama doesn't have the depth of support FDR enjoyed. "FDR didn't have to sell anything. Congress and the people came to him, begging him. If he'd wanted to be appointed dictator, all he had to do was ask." Obama faces a far more skeptical audience. The TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) pushed through by the Bush administration was badly executed and public support for the auto bailout fell well short of a majority. People are beginning to focus on how much more deeply in hock we're putting the country in order to get out of the downward spiral gripping the nation. The first rule, if you're in a hole, is you should stop digging. But digging deeper is not so paradoxical if you study history, and Obama is citing a consensus among economists, liberal and conservative, that a massive stimulus package is needed.

Obama brushed aside a question from a reporter about the crisis in the Middle East distracting from his economic agenda, saying a president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time. Yet conflicts are inevitable and Galston predicts they will erupt over the sequencing of major initiatives like health-care reform, a 21st century energy policy and a regulatory overhaul of the financial sector. Obama seems to think that Congress—with 435 members of the House and 100 senators, and all those committees and staff—can multi-task like everybody else and do parallel work on policies and programs. That was Jimmy Carter's position, and he was a one-term president, dismissed for trying to do too much and accomplishing too little.

Because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean it's not possible, but it will take someone unusually skilled and lucky to overcome the constraints built into legislative life. But then consider the alternative. If the country weren't in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, nobody would be asking Obama to spend $800 billion, and maybe Obama wouldn't be paging Dr. Gupta.

Clift: Can Obama Deliver on His Promises? | News