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What the new president needs



President Barack Obama will no doubt ask for many things in the coming weeks — from Congress, from the states, from banks and businesses, and from the American people.

Obama will ask for new legislation, new programs, new regulations, not to mention confirmation of all his new people. He will promise a better tomorrow, millions of new jobs, help for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages, bailouts for banks saddled with bad loans that promised big returns.

Yes, we can, he will tell us again, and I have no doubt we can. Eventually.

People kept asking me what would happen this week. Big crowds. A great speech. A lot of parties. Countless television clichés. And yes, some policy stuff. Some “easy” executive orders. And by easy, I don’t mean unimportant. I mean the sorts of things any Democrat would do: stem cell research; an end to the “gag rule” limiting federally funded health clinics from giving accurate information about abortion; expansion of health care for poor children, which President Bush vetoed twice and which may well be the first bill signed and a symbol of what a difference a president can make.

But did the economy turn around after Tuesday’s inaugural address? No. And it won’t on Wednesday or Thursday, either. Will cars start rolling off the assembly lines in Detroit like they used to, and will ‘E-Z Credit’ signs go up at your local car dealer and furniture store? No. Will the lines at the unemployment office get shorter? No. Will the mall suddenly be full of shoppers ready to spend again? No.

Obama is the president, not the Messiah. Turning around the economy will take time, not a miracle.

Recently, Larry Summers, who was Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury and will be Obama’s senior economic adviser, wrote a letter to Congress in support of the request to release the other $350 billion in TARP money. Congress wanted to know how the Obama administration planned to spend the money — not an unreasonable request when you’re authorizing $350 billion in new spending and it is far from clear that the first half was well-spent and didn’t just prop up the folks on Wall Street who paid themselves more than most of us will make in a lifetime for creating a mess that could take decades to clean up.

Larry, who is an old friend of mine and an extraordinarily smart guy, wrote a letter that basically said we’ll spend it better than the last guys did; we’ll spend it the way every politician says it should be spent — to help struggling homeowners and smaller banks and consumers who need credit — and we’ll make sure that money given to fat cats on Wall Street comes with limits on bloated executive compensation and bonus systems.

Politically, it was dead on, the sort of letter that would have passed for a detailed plan if this were a campaign. But it isn’t. And many in Congress feel they’ve already been burnt and now need to establish that they are not going to give another blank check.

So instead of accepting the letter and saying, “Sure thing, boss,” even the leading Democrats came out and said they want details, the numbers, the who and the how and the how much — the sort of thing you can’t do on the fly in a matter of days, while you’re also trying to figure out the stimulus package, go through security clearances and confirmations, and even, in the case of the future Treasury secretary, pay your own back taxes. If the devil is in the details, the new team is going to have to go to hell and back more than once to get what they need from Congress.

That’s not a bad thing. In general, the faster you put a plan together the worse it will be. Haste makes waste. A crisis calls for action, not knee-jerk reaction.

If you’re going to spend $350 billion from TARP and another $700 billion for a stimulus package, the time spent deciding how to do it should at least be measured in weeks or months, not days. Otherwise, you’ll be more likely to make the sort of mistakes and missteps known as waste, fraud and abuse that will give right-wing yakkers the ammunition to spend the next two years taking potshots and trying to dissolve your congressional majority.

In the long run, Democrats in Congress may do the administration a favor if they make them spend the time now — instead of later, defending what went wrong. Obama needs many things from Congress and the American people, but what he might need most is time.

Yes, we can. But not all at once, and certainly not this week.

©2009 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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