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Obama team weighs which issues to tackle first

President-elect Barack Obama and his advisers are trying to figure out which of his expansive campaign promises to push in the opening months of his tenure.
/ Source: The New York Times

With the economy in disarray and the nation’s treasury draining, President-elect Barack Obama and his advisers are trying to figure out which of his expansive campaign promises to push in the opening months of his tenure and which to put on a slower track.

Mr. Obama repeated on Saturday that his first priority would be an economic recovery program to get the nation’s business system back on track and people back to work. But advisers said the question was whether they could tackle health care, climate change and energy independence at once or needed to stagger these initiatives over time.

The debate between a big-bang strategy of pressing aggressively on multiple fronts versus a more pragmatic, step-by-step approach has flavored the discussion among Mr. Obama’s transition advisers for months, even before his election. The tension between these strategies has been a recurring theme in the memorandums prepared for him on various issues, advisers said.

“Every president is tempted to take on too much,” said one Obama adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “On the other hand, there’s the Roosevelt example and the L.B.J. example, which suggest an extraordinary president can do an awful lot. So that’s the question: Is it too risky for the president to be ambitious?”

Much of the issue may be out of Mr. Obama’s hands. The $700 billion financial bailout threatens to push the deficit into the stratosphere. “The poor man has his hands tied by the economic and financial mess we have right now,” said John Tuck, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan. “I don’t know what his options are. They’re very, very limited.”

At a news conference Friday and again in a radio address on Saturday, Mr. Obama signaled that he intended to move quickly to address the nation’s financial problems, despite any obstacles. “I want to ensure that we hit the ground running on Jan. 20,” he said on Saturday, “because we don’t have a moment to lose.”

The argument for an aggressive approach in the mold of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson is that health care, energy and education are all part of systemic economic problems and should be addressed comprehensively. But Democrats are discussing a hybrid strategy that would push for a bold economic program and also encompass other elements of Mr. Obama’s campaign platform, even if larger goals are put off.

Congressional leaders want to move swiftly in January to pass a major expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program — a plan vetoed by President Bush — as a step toward the broader coverage Mr. Obama promised. Likewise, Democrats plan to incorporate his proposed middle-class tax cuts in the economic legislation or pass them in tandem. And Mr. Obama could increase investment in alternative energy as a down payment on a far-reaching climate plan.

“I believe it would be important to show fairly early on that change is here,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a member of the House Democratic leadership. “One of the very visible ways to show that would be to pass some of the bills George Bush vetoed.”

Mr. Obama has acknowledged that the economy will force him to recalibrate his program but insists that he has not backed off his commitments. “We can’t afford to wait on moving forward on the key priorities that I identified during the campaign, including clean energy, health care, education and tax relief for middle class families,” he said Saturday.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama identified many other priorities — withdrawing from Iraq and talks with Iran, tackling immigration and the issue of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and trade negotiations with the country’s North American neighbors.

At the same time, his team is tamping down expectations of instant action by discouraging talk of a 100-day program.

Mr. Obama’s transition advisers studied how Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton used their first months. The lesson many drew was that even if various agencies moved forward in many directions, a new president must husband his time, energy and political capital for three dominant priorities at most. Several Obama advisers cited Reagan, who concentrated his early efforts on pushing through major tax cuts and increased military spending.

But advisers also worry that putting off sweeping initiatives makes them harder to pass later, when a president’s mandate and momentum have faded. Again, they pointed to Mr. Clinton, who delayed his ultimately doomed health care plan while he passed a deficit reduction package and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The pent-up demand from Democrats who waited out the Bush administration will be enormous. “In the next three months before they take over, the list of demands on the table is going to be staggering, absolutely staggering,” said former Representative Jim Leach of Iowa, a Republican who endorsed Mr. Obama during the campaign.

Mr. Obama recognizes that. In an interview on CNN days before the election, he explicitly ranked his priorities, starting with an economic recovery package that would include middle-class tax relief. His second priority, he said, would be energy; third, health care; fourth, tax restructuring; and fifth, education.

But then he hedged, foreseeing the unforeseen. “We don’t know yet what’s going to happen in January,” he said. “And none of this can be accomplished if we continue to see a potential meltdown in the banking system or the financial system.”

Energy and Economy, Intertwined
“I will invest $15 billion a year in renewable sources of energy to create five million new energy jobs over the next decade.”

On energy and climate change, Mr. Obama’s focus has shifted markedly over the course of the year as the economy has weakened.

An earlier proposal put an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gases, requiring industry and utilities to buy credits from the government to emit carbon dioxide. That plan would produce hundreds of billions of dollars in government revenue and drive up the cost of energy for everyone.

Mr. Obama is now emphasizing a program to spend $150 billion over 10 years to develop renewable sources of energy, like wind, solar and biofuels, and to encourage energy conservation in homes, offices and public buildings. He would also provide substantial financial help to the auto industry to develop high-mileage and electric cars.

Beyond ‘No Child Left Behind’
“A truly historic commitment to education — a real commitment — will require new resources and new reforms.”

Mr. Obama’s education plan outlined some $8 billion for recruiting, performance pay and other initiatives that represent his approach to updating the education law known as No Child Left Behind. But his plan also offered grand proposals for every level of education, including a $4,000 tuition tax credit that would make college more affordable for millions of students and a $10 billion expansion of early childhood programs.

The challenge will be how to finance all these proposals when budgets are extremely tight, experts said.

Mr. Obama’s $10 billion proposal to expand early childhood education would probably produce tremendous savings to the nation later, but experts said he would find it extremely challenging to finance under current financial conditions.

Reaching the 45 Million Uninsured
“If you don’t have health insurance, you’ll be able to get the same kind of health insurance that members of Congress get.”

Mr. Obama has said “every American has a right to affordable health care,” but he has not said exactly how he would finance coverage for the 45 million people who are uninsured. The economic slump and the bailout for the financial industry may reduce the amounts available to cover the uninsured.

On his Web site, Mr. Obama says his health plan “will lower health care costs by $2,500 for a typical family by investing in health information technology, prevention and care coordination.” Health policy experts endorse those goals, but say they are unlikely to produce such large savings.

If Mr. Obama hopes to keep his promise, he will need to mobilize public support for specific legislative proposals. And he will need to co-opt or placate a swarm of lobbyists.

Interrogations and Guantánamo
“We’re going to lead by setting the highest of standards for civil liberties and civil rights and human rights.”

As president, Mr. Obama could simply declare an end to practices that have been widely condemned as torture. He could revoke President Bush’s executive order, disclosed in 2007, allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to use more severe interrogation techniques than allowed under the Army Field Manual.

To do so, however, he would have to overrule at least some intelligence professionals who have argued that they need more aggressive methods.

His pledge to close the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would require finding a place to imprison dozens of detainees. Federal officials have drafted plans to move them to centers in the United States, but even supporters of that acknowledge the potential consequences, including the release of suspects for lack of evidence.

Security and Citizenship
“We cannot deport 12 million people. Instead, we’ll require them to pay a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line.”

As a senator, Mr. Obama supported comprehensive immigration overhaul, and in the campaign he pledged to enhance border security and provide a path to citizenship for millions in the country illegally. And while he said he favored a guest worker program, he also advocated tougher penalties for employing illegal immigrants.

But Mr. Obama’s proposals are likely to encounter resistance from opponents who contend that they amount to amnesty — an argument that helped jettison a bill in Congress. And with the economy shedding jobs, opponents will also argue that immigrants are taking jobs from citizens. But experts say Mr. Obama will face pressure to act from the many Hispanic voters who supported his candidacy in part because of his stance on immigration.

Tax Breaks, Old and New
“As president, here’s what I’ll do: cut taxes for every working family making less than $200,000 a year.”

Mr. Obama pledged to extend the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 past 2010, when they would expire, for taxpayers making less than $250,000 a year. He would repeal the cuts for taxpayers making more than that, effective Jan. 1, 2010.

Mr. Obama considers the extension for those making under $250,000 a continuation of current policy, not a tax cut.

But he promises a new break for taxpayers making less than $200,000 — an annual tax credit of $500 a worker, or $1,000 per working couple. It would be a refundable credit, so those who do not earn enough to pay income taxes but do pay payroll taxes would also benefit.

Given the economic crisis and the Democratic gains in Congress, the odds are good that he will push the measures through.

Withdrawing From Iraq
“Nobody’s talking about bringing them home instantly, but one to two brigades a month. It’ll take about 16 months to get our combat troops out.”

Mr. Obama has said repeatedly that he would set a 16-month timetable for troop withdrawal. Some military experts believe that could lead to a reversal of the gains from the surge in troops over the past 18 months, and they argue that the generals running the war should decide how many troops to pull out and when to do it.

Mr. Obama appears to have the Iraqi government on his side. Iraqi leaders say his timetable is closer to theirs, which they put at 2010. The Bush administration timetable, which has some wiggle room, is 2011.

But all of this supposes relative stability, even while troops are withdrawing. And questions also remain about the kind and level of force Mr. Obama would leave behind.

Working With Iran
“I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leaders at a time and place of my choosing.”

Mr. Obama initially raised expectations that he would meet with Iran’s leaders; he said during the campaign that the notion of not talking to foes was “ridiculous.” Since then, he has tempered his words somewhat, indicating that he would send envoys initially and would meet personally with Iranian leaders only if he thought he could advance the American agenda.

Mr. Obama also faces the issue of when to reach out. If he makes a move before June, when Iran’s presidential election is scheduled, he risks giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claim to a foreign policy victory, to the possible detriment of more moderate Iranian presidential aspirants. But if he waits too long, Iran could get closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Negotiating Nafta
“I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced.”

No legal hurdle would prevent President-elect Obama from pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a distinction from other trade deals. But trade experts say the political and economic costs of scuttling the deal would be enormous.

Even opening it up to renegotiate labor and environmental standards carries risks: Canada might seize the opportunity to renegotiate provisions on energy, while Mexico might push for access for its trucks in the United States.

Mr. Obama’s union supporters have not put changing Nafta at the top of their agenda, focusing instead on issues like China’s exchange rate. With little political upside and so much potential downside, this may be one issue Mr. Obama prefers not to touch.

This story, "Obama Team Weighing What to Take On in First Months," originally appeared in the New York Times.