When paychecks are not coming, or not paying the bills, all other issues seem relatively trivial.‚ Obama’s first six months will be almost exclusively focused on economics.‚ Unlike Bill Clinton, who in his first year made a noble but failed effort to allow gays to fight in the military, Obama will have no latitude to focus his significant political capital on such issues.‚ Barring an unforeseen event, there will be no campaigns to influence affirmative action, gay rights immigration reform and so on, early in an Obama presidency.
The goal will be to create and preserve jobs in an effort to keep the recession from turning into the Next Great Depression. While the transition team has not laid out the details, he has given some examples of what it may include.
Obama’s goal is to create 2.5 million new jobs over a two year period, largely through, what he says will be “the largest infrastructure program in roads and bridges and other traditional infrastructure since the building of the federal highway system in the 1950s.”
Many transportation projects are funded through state agencies, and this is another area where help is expected. Currently state governments all over the country are struggling. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 44 states faced or are facing shortfalls in their budgets with combined budget gaps for the remainder the next three years are estimated to total more than $350 billion.
The state budgets problems are leading governments to shed jobs, delay or cancel construction programs and to trim services to the needy – a group which is getting larger as the recession deepens.
As a result, the National Governors’ Associations has sent representatives of both parties to meet with Obama, with their hands out.‚ And Obama insists he will provide help.
Possibilities include offering grants for road projects without requiring matching grants and increasing Medicaid aid.
Obama has also pledged increased benefits such as unemployment and food stamps as well as a $150 billion in “green infrastructure.”
The plan has continued to grow, and Obama said passing the stimulus package will “be the first thing I pass as president.”
One element of the early stages of the Obama presidency that is likely to be less stressful than the stimulus is the confirmation of his Cabinet appointments.
One reason for this, clearly, is that Congress is dominated by Democrats – with either 58 or 59 senators caucusing with the Democrats (depending on how legal challenges in the Minnesota race shake out) and 257 of the 435 seats on Congress.‚ Further, Obama has at least two Republicans up for key cabinet posts – Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates and Ray LaHood as transportation secretary, which will likely ease Republican discontent.
We will also begin to see how some of these appointments will run their departments. For example, there is much speculation that the State Department, led by Hillary Clinton, will be far more powerful under Obama, then it was under Bush, where, especially in the first term, the Department of Defense was dominant.
“Even before taking office, Hillary Rodham Clinton is seeking to build a more powerful State Department, with a bigger budget, high-profile special envoys to trouble spots and an expanded role in dealing with global economic issues at a time of crisis,” the New York Times recently reported.
We may also see high profile special envoys begin working in areas of conflict. Bill Clinton is expected to take a key role in dealing with increasing tensions in Pakistan and India, and many expect that Dennis Ross will have a key role in Middle-East negotiations, although Israel’s latest attacks on Gaza will only complicate Obama’s plans.
In any case the early stages of the Obama presidency will be as crucial to his administration than perhaps any other in American history.
“We need to see big strategic moves, positions set by Obama, and he needs to benchmark those against the past of incrementalism, a past of continuity, and tell Americans things are going to be different tomorrow,” said Steve Clemons, a senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, in an interview with Salon. “He’s got a very short window to make the Obama bubble mean something before it explodes.”