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Published: Sunday, 3/8/2009

Obama might be reaching too far

IN just a few weeks, Barack Obama has gone from "The Audacity of Hope" to the hope of audacity.

Like most presidential candidates, Mr. Obama on the campaign trail threw out a lot of policy proposals - on the environment, education, taxes, foreign policy, and health care. But what Mr. Obama principally peddled was hope. He knew it, his listeners knew it, the commentators knew it. Hope was the prescription for a period when spirits were low - though, it is important to remember, the Dow Jones Industrial Average during most of the campaign was not low. Not low at all.

Now that the Dow has given up half its value, the government has thrown trillions of dollars into banks and investment houses, and unemployment is doing a high step toward alarming levels, Mr. Obama is calculating that hope is not enough. He's using as his playbook the promises of the Obama campaign.

Already the Obama opposition is developing, engaging one terrifying word - socialism - and two scary ones - too much. The question of this troubled hour is whether the President is trying to do too much, spend too much, risk too much.

Many years ago, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo used to say that a governor could do anything he wanted, but he couldn't do everything he wanted. Mr. Obama, who was 21 years old when Mr. Cuomo was first elected as governor, may not have heard that message.

So he's going for the full monty. (Check the movie of that title and you will see, appropriately, that it was a story about four unemployed guys.) He wants to provide universal health care (and believes it's possible). He wants to attack global warming (and believes it's warranted). He wants to change the way education is underwritten (and believes it's essential).

In the old days the budget curmudgeons worried about billions. That is so 2008.

Some perspective: Ronald Reagan won the White House in part by deploring Jimmy Carter's budget deficit, which was $73 billion. All of Washington was aghast - in shock! - at that figure. Mr. Obama is contemplating a budget deficit of $1.75 trillion - 24 times bigger than Mr. Carter's. That is enough to make former Sen. Everett Dirksen gag, even though he's dead.

Mr. Dirksen remarked that "a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon we're talking about real money." Now a billion has become a mere rounding error.

It's not hard to see why Mr. Obama is doing this. The financial crisis has one terrific asset. It diminishes the barriers against doing the really difficult things the government hasn't been able to afford for years.

Mr. Obama's predecessor threw around billions, maybe trillions (we may never know how much), to save AIG and some of the biggest financial firms in the country. When the government in the flick of an eye can obligate more than $700 billion for mortgage-backed securities, it sure takes the sting out of a health-care plan that averages out to $63 billion annually over 10 years.

Here's a measure of that: The first time I typed that sentence, my fingers inserted the word "only" before $63 billion. Then my brain kicked in and I deleted the word.

There was a time when conservatives argued that deficits didn't matter. That was when deficits were (relatively) diminutive, and when the economy was growing. The notion was that tax cuts would fuel more growth, which would increase tax revenue, and even if deficits increased for a while, everything would come out OK in the end.

There is negative or little growth now, and the great incalculable is whether all this government money sloshing around in the economy will spur growth or create the mother of all deficits and the mother of all crises for some other year. Some other year like 2010.

Even the people who are supposed to know these things don't pretend to, which is another reminder, as if we needed one these days, why economics is oftentimes called the dismal science. But the President, who counts audacity as a measure of character, is using the crisis to do what would be more difficult to do if the economy were more nearly normal. If things were good, he'd have a harder time committing tens of billions to green the economy, expand health care, or overhaul education. He couldn't mount an offensive on the environment. In a period of customary growth, he couldn't overhaul education.

And so, the crisis is setting Mr. Obama free.

But the things he wants are not free, even if Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, and other movement conservatives used to argue that deficits didn't matter. Maybe deficits don't matter in some eras and they matter in others. Maybe small deficits don't matter and big ones do. Maybe big deficits are not bad in especially bad times.

All this should prompt a debate on what we might call the Browning Principle, named for Robert Browning, who wrote that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp." Mr. Obama is following that principle. His critics are saying that he is over-reaching.

These things, admittedly, are hard to calibrate. Was FDR, for example, merely trying to exceed his grasp when he proposed Social Security legislation in 1935 but overreaching two years later when he put forward his plan to pack the Supreme Court?

These questions defy scientific or precise answers. Whether Mr. Obama can successfully resolve the tension between the two - between reaching and over-reaching - is one of the fundamental challenges of his presidency.


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