Overload is not Obama's main problem

My column for the FT this week questions the view that Obama has taken on too much:

A new conventional wisdom is forming in Washington and it spells trouble for Barack Obama's administration. Coming from the president's own side as well as from his enemies, the argument says he has taken on far too much. This has been the theme of a torrent of recent commentary.

The criticism has instant superficial plausibility and it is bipartisan, which makes it dangerous for the administration. But is it fair? I understand the criticism but I think it is not quite right.

The White House felt it had to respond directly at the end of last week. "The truth is that these problems In the financial market, as acute and urgent as they are, are only part what threatens our economy," said Mr Obama. "And we must not use the need to confront them as an excuse to keep ignoring the long-term threats to our prosperity: the cost of our health care and our oil addiction; our education deficit and our fiscal deficit... We must build this recovery on a foundation that lasts."

Mr Obama's effort to fold the wider agenda of healthcare reform, new investment in education, and a quasi-tax on carbon emissions into the short-term plans for addressing the economic crisis is not at all convincing. These are patently separable issues. Moreover, the administration surrendered its credibility on this early when it said, in the words of the White House chief of staff, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."  The administration itself thus declared, in memorably hubristic terms, that it is seizing an opportunity, rather than battling on all fronts because it has no choice.

However, suppose for the sake of argument that the administration is right--as I believe it is--to want to reform healthcare, bring in a quasi-tax on carbon, and invest in an upgraded education system. At the same time we can take it for granted that the overriding short-term priority is to mend the financial system and promote economic recovery: nobody disagrees with that. The crucial calculation is then about momentum on one side and capacity on the other.

You can read the rest of it here.



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