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Obama takes on role even before taking office

November 30, 2008
Washington Times
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The financial crisis has forced President-elect Barack Obama to begin governing sooner than he’d otherwise hoped, giving him at least part ownership of the issue and putting him at odds with his pledge two weeks ago not to impinge on President Bush’s final two months in office.

But even Republicans said there’s a big upside for Mr. Obama: As the crisis abates, he’ll be able to say he was there from the beginning and can take credit – deserved or not – when the economy finally improves.

“He’s going to get credit for something that’s already going to happen anyway,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who added it’s “totally appropriate” for Mr. Obama to step in and help calm the markets. “Confidence is what’s needed in the market. The more he speaks, the more confident we get, so I think that’s a good thing.”

After an initial postelection press conference and a White House meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama had kept a low profile, remaining in Chicago, where he interviewed potential administration hires. But as the markets spiraled downward last week, news leaked that Mr. Obama would tap Timothy F. Geithner to be Treasury secretary – a move that helped boost the Dow Jones Industrial Average that afternoon by nearly 500 points.

This week, Mr. Obama has taken an active role, holding brief, attention-grabbing press conferences on Monday and Tuesday and scheduling another for Wednesday, all on the economy. He said Tuesday he understands why there are questions about his involvement, having said two weeks ago there would only be one president at a time.

“Given the extraordinary circumstances that we find ourselves in, however, I think it is very important for the American people to understand that we are putting together a first-class team and for them to have clarity that we don’t intend to stumble into the next administration,” Mr. Obama said.

There is risk in Mr. Obama getting involved – if the economy doesn’t improve soon, the doldrums could begin to affect his own popularity. But Mr. Obama was going to own the crisis Jan. 20 anyway, so the early involvement makes sense.

Presidents have two major powers: the ability to hire and fire a team, and to push Congress for action. In the last week, Mr. Obama has exercised both prerogatives, announcing his hires and demanding Congress act on a spending bill to stimulate the economy.

Still, the president-elect has been short on specifics, declining to commit to a dollar figure for the spending bill.

Instead, his moves have been designed to calm market fears, and the team he’s announced – on Tuesday, he tapped two Capitol Hill figures, Peter Orszag to be his budget director and Rob Nabors to be deputy budget director – has won praise from Republicans as well as Democrats.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said the names have helped ease his worries over Mr. Obama, while other Republicans said Mr. Obama’s stated commitment to spending cuts provides ground for bipartisanship.

Both Mr. Obama and the White House said there hasn’t been any friction – and indeed, said there’s been close cooperation.

“We are working hand-in-glove with them,” White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, adding that the administration and the transition team are “talking all the time.”

An Obama transition official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the relationship is good and that “they notify us in advance of major decisions.”

Still, Mr. Obama has broken with Mr. Bush both in word and in deed as he makes his transition.

Mr. Bush, after winning re-election in 2004 with 51 percent, said he’d earned a mandate and political capital and vowed to spend it on overhauling Social Security, tax reform, immigration and fighting the war on terror – and is ending with a mixed record.

But Mr. Obama, despite winning 53 percent of the vote, spoke Tuesday of governing with “humility” and said the mandate he sees is for change from the Bush approach.

“I won 53 percent of the vote. That means 46 percent or 47 percent of the country voted for John McCain,” he said. “I think what the American people want more than anything is just common-sense, smart government. They don’t want ideology; they don’t want bickering; they don’t want sniping. They want action, and they want effectiveness.”

Mr. Obama said the argument on spending isn’t over “big government or small government,” it’s about “smart government and effective government.”

The president-elect has called for Congress to pass a large spending bill to pump money into the economy, but said that doesn’t mean an open checkbook. Still, the only specific spending cut he mentioned Tuesday was eliminating $49 million in agricultural subsidy payments to wealthy farmers who already should be excluded.

Mr. Obama said in the short-term, jobs are paramount, but after the economy is stabilized he will turn his attention to the deficit.

“My first priority and my first job is to get us on the path of economic recovery, to create 2.5 million jobs, to provide relief to middle-class families. But as soon as the recovery is well under way, then we’ve got to set up a long-term plan to reduce the structural deficit and make sure that we’re not leaving a mountain of debt for the next generation,” he said.

Mr. Coburn, who teamed with Mr. Obama on spending-transparency issues in the Senate, said his friend and former colleague is saying all the right things on spending – and now he needs to follow through.

“It’s all about whether it’s a priority, and my hope is that he’ll make it a priority,” Mr. Coburn said. “So far, everything I’ve seen, he usually does everything he says.

“The budget manager is key to spending, so that direction comes from the president. We obviously didn’t have, even though we had good guys, we didn’t have that direction from this president,” Mr. Coburn said.

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