Picking from the list of worthwhile goals

PICKING FROM THE LIST OF WORTHWHILE GOALS…. Hilzoy noted overnight that Barack Obama’s team plans to implement some key and easily-implemented changes almost immediately after taking office. A team of advisers has worked for months to identify key “regulatory and policy changes” Obama could address quickly, and will more on them shortly after the inauguration. The moves, all of which were part of Obama’s campaign agenda, include reversing Bush/Cheney policies on climate change, stem cell research, and reproductive rights, most notably the indefensible global gag rule.

No drawn out fights, just important progressive policy improvements, right off the bat. Those looking for encouraging signs of “change” won’t have to wait very long.

But these important policy goals are, in some ways, the proverbial low-hanging fruit. What comes next? The extent to which the Obama administration should be ambitious and aggressive, or cautious and deliberate, is the subject of some debate among the president-elect’s aides. The New York Times’ Peter Baker reports:

During the campaign, Mr. Obama identified many other priorities, like withdrawing from Iraq; talking with Iran; tackling immigration; closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; and renegotiating trade rules with the country’s neighbors.

Mr. Obama’s transition advisers studied how past presidents used their first months and concluded that even if various agencies moved forward in many directions, a new chief executive must husband his time, energy and political capital for three dominant priorities at most. Several Obama advisers cited Reagan, who concentrated his early efforts on tax cuts and military spending.

But advisers also worry that putting off sweeping initiatives makes them harder to pass later, when a president’s mandate and momentum have faded. They pointed to Mr. Clinton, who delayed his ultimately doomed health care plan while he passed a deficit reduction package and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And the pent-up demand from Democrats who waited out the Bush administration will be enormous…. Mr. Obama recognizes that. In an interview on CNN days before the election, he explicitly ranked his priorities, starting with an economic recovery package that would include middle-class tax relief. His second priority, he said, would be energy; third, health care; fourth, tax restructuring; and fifth, education.

Using history as a guide, Obama’s team concluded new presidents can invest energy in, at most, “three dominant priorities.” That sounds about right to me, as do Obama’s list of priorities. Trying to do all at once makes it that much more likely that divided attention will produce disappointing results.

Part of the challenge, though, is how and whether the Democratic Congress will follow Obama’s lead. As Kevin noted, Dems have hopefully “learned their lesson from 1993 and can put their egos in check enough to actually take some guidance from the guy in the White House.”

There’s no practical difference between Obama’s vision and that of congressional leaders. The trick of it is allowing the president to take the lead in setting the agenda. My sense is Pelosi and Reid will be anxious and cooperate partners. We’ll see soon enough.