Democrats Ask: Should Obama Go Fast Or Slow? It's been only two weeks and a day since the election, and Democrats are already debating how fast President-elect Barack Obama should go in bringing change to Washington.
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Democrats Ask: Should Obama Go Fast Or Slow?

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Democrats Ask: Should Obama Go Fast Or Slow?

Democrats Ask: Should Obama Go Fast Or Slow?

Democrats Ask: Should Obama Go Fast Or Slow?

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  • Transcript

One of the many benefits of being the president-elect is that you get a lot of unsolicited advice.

Although it's only been two weeks since Election Day, Barack Obama is already being bombarded with suggestions from all points on the Democratic compass.

Should he go fast, or should he go slow? Should he push a huge stimulus package or a merely big one? And should a transformation of health care and energy be top priorities in the first year?

Bob Kuttner, the author of a new book called Obama's Challenge, is one of the people who is urging the new administration to pursue an ambitious liberal agenda.

"I think the enormous risk here is that the Obama administration will think too small," he said. "The conventional wisdom is still alive, and there are still lots of people that think that larger deficits are a bigger risk than Great Depression II. There are a lot of warmed over 'Clintonistas,' whose fingerprints are all over the deregulation that brought us this travesty, who are advising Obama."

Kuttner delivered these remarks Saturday at a conference sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute to mark the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt's election. And Kuttner's advice was aimed at an incoming president who is inheriting the worst economic crisis since Roosevelt.

Jonathan Alter, the author of The Defining Moment, on Roosevelt's first 100 days in office, says Roosevelt should be the model and that Obama should craft a new New Deal.

"They've got too many Clintonians in there right now. They've got to get 1993 out of their heads, and they need to get 1933 into their heads," he said.

Advice From The Clinton Camp

But those Clintonians are pushing back. On Tuesday, at a briefing in Washington, D.C. — pointedly titled "Is This 1932 or 1992?" — two Clinton White House veterans discussed 50 years of research that may pour cold water on those who think the election was a mandate for bold progressive governance.

One of those ex-Clinton staffers, Elaine Kamarck, said that while today people are demanding action from the government to solve the economic crisis, Americans' trust in government is still historically low. Only 24 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government to do what is right.

"In the flush of an election and the excitement of an election, people forget that this is a long-standing characteristic of the American public. That hampers your ability to act," she said.

There is no data for 1932, but Kamarck points out that in 1964, 75 percent of Americans trusted the government.

"When there was a similarly other large Democratic mandate with LBJ and he passed Medicare, that was a high point of trust in government," she said. "And so for those in the Democratic Party who are urging that we change everything all at once, right now this year, they don't have the same kind of permission on that part of the public that Lyndon Johnson did in 1964. And I think that's something really important to keep in mind."

Kamarck agrees that Obama should move quickly and boldly, but thinks he should rebuild trust in government before he moves on to big, systemic changes in health care or energy.

Another ex-Clinton staffer, Bill Galston, says there is something else to keep in mind, particularly for Democrats eager to proclaim an Obama-led realignment: It's true that self-identified Democrats now outnumber Republicans by about seven percentage points, but the size of the Democrats' new majority in Congress is still relatively small.

"It's easy to forget that by 1936, Republicans were down to 88 House seats and 16 seats in the Senate," he said. "The changes that have occurred during the past two cycles, while significant, do not come close, either quantitatively or qualitatively, to that quintessential realignment, and so we are saying as a political matter, the declaration of a realignment is at least premature."

Signs From The President-Elect

As the debate rages on, many of the president-elect's supporters think they see some disappointing signals. The liberal blogosphere is also full of concerns about a perceived shift to the center. On the list of grievances is Hillary Clinton as a possible secretary of state; Sen. Joe Lieberman being forgiven and back in the fold; the bury-the-hatchet meeting with Sen. John McCain, and the word that no Bush administration official will be prosecuted for torture.

The president-elect himself hasn't said much to clarify where he stands in this war for his heart and mind. But when he spoke with 60 Minutes on Sunday, he did add another presidential analogy to the mix that might not make liberal Democrats happy.

"Whether it's coming from FDR or it's coming from Ronald Reagan, if the idea is right for the times, then we're going to apply it. And things that don't work, we're going to get rid of," he said.

It sounds like the president-elect wants to be pragmatic and, for inspiration, ecumenical.

And here's one other clue into how he might act: On his plane recently, he was overheard by reporters saying into his cell phone, "I don't want us to go lurching so far in one direction."

It will probably be a little while longer until Democrats, left and center, get a clear view of just how Obama plans to govern.