Obama Needs to Keep Eye on Ball, Not Party Label

Washington Matters

Obama Needs to Keep Eye on Ball, Not Party Label

All this making nice and reaching across the aisle is well and good and even sound politics, but if Obama expects to change the way things work in Washington -- and push through an effective stimulus package -- he needs to quit worrying about Republicans, and Democrats for that matter. These are dangerous times that require tough lawmaking that pays no heed to party label or doctrine but produces a bill where every single provision -- every nickel -- is subjected to a test: Will it create jobs or otherwise startle awake the narcoleptic economy.

Anything that fails that test has to fall by the wayside.

The problem with the standard form of bipartisanship is that votes are won by spreading the wealth -- a little for you, a little for me. Sure, the result is legislation that has enough votes to pass and even broad enough ideological support to call it a broad-based bipartisan compromise. That generally means that particular interest groups within the base of each party get something that matters to them.

But far too much is at stake for such politics at usual. If a package of this size fails, the economy will struggle far longer and the country will be saddled with crushing debt for decades to come. But if it works, the recession could be shorter and growth could come fast enough to generate enough revenue to at least make the debt and deficits manageable.

Obama can't dictate the terms of the legislation, but he has the moral authority and public backing to reject any single item that doesn't meet his criteria of being fast acting and temporary. So rather than focus on cajoling and appeasing members of Congress, the president should focus on the package itself. And he has the tools, skill and political will to pull it off.

Obama won in large part by promising pragmatism and by using the Internet to carry his message straight to voters. He should marry those things and post an analysis of the stimulus package that breaks it down as much as possible and explains how each plank is intended to help the economy. That will make it possible to vet and argue, on the merits, every initiative in the bill. In some cases, it may be a pure judgment call -- so defend and explain the judgment behind it. There may be plenty of disagreements about what might or might not work and those can be settled by votes and negotiation. But such a list would also make it far easier to single out things that have no business being in the package. There are a lot of tax cuts and spending proposals of dubious stimulative value. They may be fine ideas, but they should be proposed and considered separately.

In trying to figure out what may work best, Obama could do a lot worse than listen adopting some of the arguments of Martin Feldstein, a former economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan and one of the most the respected economists in the country. Feldstein is a low-tax, balanced budget conservative, but far from a doctrinaire one. He helped spur consideration of an enormous stimulus package by calling for one even before the election. He embraces the same broad principles spelled out by Obama, but in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post today that brands the current package "An $800 million Mistake." He faults both spending and tax breaks in the plan and is sure to draw the ire of conservatives and liberals alike. Many of the tax provisions are things that Obama included in the package to win some GOP support. That's a lousy reason -- and someone with Feldstein's cerdentials is a perfect foil for getting rid of them.

But Obama needs to gore some Democratic oxes as well. Good and popular ideas need to wait their turn while the country sorts out its priorities. In fact, respected Democratic economist Alice Rivlin suggests considering the most immediate and clearly stimulative projects and tax breaks now and to consider longer range investments in a second package so that it is carefully pulled together and less prone to mistakes and waste.

Politically, this actually could be a golden opportunity for Obama. Nothing would change Washington more quickly and drastically than bringing a sledge hammer down on projects in this package that are favored by both parties -- all in the name of national interest and pragmatism. Now that would be bipartisanship -- and send a clear signal that things really are changing.