Obama embracing economic crisis as an opportunity

Associated Press | 3/4/2009, 4:07 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Like other presidents saddled with crisis, Barack Obama is embracing the worst economic conditions in a generation as an opportunity to advance an audacious agenda that, if successful, could reshape the country for decades to come.

The flip side: He could fall victim to grandiose plans and too-high expectations if he doesn’t deliver.

It’s clearly a chance he’s willing to take.

“We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again,” Obama told the ailing and anxious country last week. “Now is the time to act boldly and wisely.”

In his first five weeks, in his first budget and in his first address to Congress, Obama has made it clear he’s plowing ahead with his ambitious, big-ticket campaign promises. At the same time, he’s trying to reverse a recession that he inherited, by rescuing the banking, housing and financial sectors.

He wants to free the country from its foreign oil dependence, improve early childhood schooling, curb global warming, withdraw from Iraq, overhaul tax laws, fix transportation arteries, rehabilitate the image of the U.S. abroad and even find a cure for cancer. This week, he’ll host a health care summit to start a massive overhaul he hopes to complete in 2009.

Major questions hover over that broad vision. Can Obama win enough support from lawmakers and the public to accomplish what he wants without major changes? If so, will his prescriptions for the country’s ills work?

Politically, he’s betting the rewards will be worth the risks. And there are many, as he tries to do so much so soon into his presidency, with the country so deep in disarray.

“The major one is that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you move quickly without really understanding the problems,” said Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University government professor. But, he added, Obama has compensated by studying the issues and appointing an experienced Cabinet.

Obama could spread himself too thin to make the lasting change he promised as a candidate. Obama’s advisers say that at the very least, he will get credit for setting the wheels in motion on a range of long-festering problems. But voters demanding immediate results may not see it that way, and others may balk at his broad expansion of government.

Congressional politics could interfere. Many initiatives must move through the cantankerous House and Senate ahead of 2010 elections. On Capitol Hill, Obama faces the challenges of keeping his increasingly energized left-wing Democrats in line while continuing to reach out to reluctant Republicans.

If the recession doesn’t turn around in the coming years, Obama could stand accused of focusing too much on the long term. He recently acknowledged that his re-election prospects could suffer if the economy fails to rebound. He got no help last Friday with news that the economy contracted 6.2 percent in the final three months of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century.

Working in his favor are a high job approval rating and loads of political capital. Even before he took office, it was expected that Obama intended to spend that capital in a big way.