Obama's new zeal

He defies a temptation to be cautious in a recession and to not step on many toes.

After weeks of playing a Jeremiah, full of woe over a recession, President Obama finally became a Churchill in Tuesday's speech before Congress. His broad themes of reform foresee a country ready to toil and "emerge stronger than before." He'll need that vision of hope once Congress gets hold of his budget proposals.

Unlike the $787 billion stimulus package that largely boosts existing programs, Mr. Obama's first federal budget sets new directions in policy and spending – even during an economic crisis – with new projects and deep cuts that will challenge a host of entrenched interests on Capitol Hill.

His defiance against the temptation to avoid bold plans reflects a belief that his ideas for healthcare, education, and energy will improve the economy – in efficiency, well-being, and competitiveness.

Where others may call for caution, he wants to pluck "promise out of peril," or, as his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, quipped: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

At the least, the audacious plans embedded in his budget could rebuild America's confidence, which right now is more gloom than optimism. Since Obama took office, the stock market is off 10 percent and a few big banks appear ripe for federal takeover.

He'll need to retain his optimism as he asks Congress to do so much. Most can-do presidents learn fast not to pick too many fights and instead zero in on one idea at a time and focus their political capital.

But Obama told Congress that the economic crisis has revealed too many "difficult decisions were put off for some other time." He asked both Democrats and Republicans "to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars."

The sacrifices will be many, from cuts in big defense contracts to lower subsidies for farmers.

He wants lawmakers to act this year in offering "quality, affordable healthcare for every American." Rather than demand "universal" healthcare, as he once did, he may make only a modest start, but one which could lead to big sacrifices.

Will his plan, for instance, erode the private healthcare system and its freedom of choice? The president did endorse the initial House stimulus bill that called for a federal board to determine which health practices are valid and perhaps which should be rationed – even for private insurance. While the Senate watered down the provision, Obama will be asked if he still wants such a powerful body.

On energy, he wants a tight cap soon on carbon emissions to help curb global warming. But he will be asked how much of a sacrifice Americans will make – in higher electricity costs, for instance, or more expensive autos. He'll need to have an answer ready.

On education, he wants to reward the best teachers and help all young people attend at least one year of higher education. But he will be asked if such moves also should come with more choice in public education and a lessening of the power of teachers unions.

Most of all, he'll be asked how he can meet his pledge to halve the federal deficit by 2012 without raising taxes on the middle class.

Obama's speech was laced generously with "responsibility" and "accountable." He may find he will be held to act by those words.

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