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Barack Obama is channeling Ronald Reagan. Not in policy (his proposed tax cuts are not that big) but in tactics. The question is: Can the president-elect convince Congress to spend well over $1 trillion without leaving any fingerprints.
Having learned from Reagan’s legislative successes—notably the Tax Reform Act of 1986—and from Bill Clinton’s failures—see health reform—it appears Obama will never propose any specific economic stimulus legislation. Instead, he is merely sending Congress ideas, and leaving the dirty work of writing a proposal to the Hill. The New York Times Jackie Calmes did a nice post on this the other day.
But not only is Obama’s stimulus what Jackie called the “the paperless plan,” his proposals themselves seem infinitely flexible. For instance, the Obama people let it be known that a key element of the stimulus would be a tax credit to encourage businesses to hire new workers. But when that idea ran into resistance, Obama, as they say, threw it under the bus.
It all reminds me of Don Regan, who was Reagan’s Treasury Secretary. The morning Treasury rolled out its detailed version of Tax Reform (known back in the day as Treasury I), Regan was questioned by reporters about some particularly controversial provisions. Not to worry, Regan shrugged, it is all written on a word processor. His clear implication: It was easy enough to rewrite. Btw, for those too young to remember, a word processor was something like a laptop, only it couldn’t get you on the Web.
Obama is coming to Washington with much the same attitude. He’s being even more clever when it comes to the exceedingly unpopular TARP. The incoming president wants Congress to authorize the second $350 billion of this bank bailout money, but instead of asking for the funds himself, he let George Bush do the heavy lifting on his behalf. Poor Bush, I’m sure, would rather be packing.
Similarly, there is nothing wrong with a proposal as complex as the stimulus getting tweaked along the way. And, as Reagan showed, a certain amount of flexibility makes for excellent legislative politics.
But sooner or later, Obama, who voted present so often in the Illinois legislature, is going to have to get his hands dirty and take responsibility for unpopular, but necessary initiatives. That, after all, is why they let you stay in the big white house and use the fancy office.
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