Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Calm before the Storm

In recent weeks, President-elect Obama has shown himself to be a cautious pragmatist. In keeping Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his cabinet, he is signaling to his liberal base that there will be no precipitous pullout from Iraq. In selecting Senator Hillary Cinton to be Secretary of State, he has endorsed her aggressive campaign stance against negotiating with rogue-nations. We no longer hear about the windfall profit tax on oil companies that Obama had proposed during the campaign trail, and the next president is probably going to wait a while to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Barney Frank said it best in response to Obama's claim that there is only one president at a time, “I’m afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have at the present time.” There is so much frustration against the Bush presidency, and so much pent up anticipation for what is to come that if they had their way, Democrats would have moved inauguration day to the day after November 4. Liberals looking for change are doubtless disappointed and even agitated, but this is an administration-to-be saving its ammunition for the battles ahead.

The perceived prudence of the president-elect must be viewed in the light of the fact that he has no authority to do anything now. (He is not even a Senator anymore.) All the power he possesses now comes from the law of anticipated reactions. Until he takes the oath of office, he has no formal authority, though he possesses more power now than he ever will. Some call it a store of good will; journalists call it a honeymoon. But this is power that will not persist; it will start to dissipate just as Obama hits the ground running. As he finally sits down to to take the presidential test, and the distance between hope and reality, rhetoric and action narrows, his honeymoon, like the law of all good things, will end.

That is why I do not expect the prudence ex ante to continue ex post. Now is the calm before the storm. Come January 20, there shall be a flurry of activity and a big stimulus package which would include, among other things, a big infrastructure program to rebuild roads and bridges around the country. There is so much pent-up anticipation for Obama to use his electoral mandate that he is likely to benefit from the restraint he is exercising (and the angst he is causing) now. This man who has proved adept at beating the Clintons at their game during the primary season will not likely repeat their mistake of frontloading his first 100 days with more than he can handle. His legislative agenda will not be cluttered, but it will surely be bold.

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