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Obama: Can he spark the country’s confidence?

Experts disagree on whether President Obama's big budget decisions—a $1.2 trillion bank bailout, a $75 billion mortgage bailout, and a $787 billion stimulus spending plan—were necessary to save the economy from sliding into

What a fine line President Obama is trying to walk, said Janet Hook in the Los Angeles Times. With the nation mired in the deepest recession since the 1930s, Obama has spent the first weeks of his presidency warning Americans that extreme measures—a $1.2 trillion bank bailout, a $75 billion mortgage bailout, and a $787 billion stimulus spending plan—were necessary to save the economy from sliding into a long-lasting depression. With that gloomy message spooking both consumers and a nervous Wall Street, critics have accused Obama of using scare tactics to muscle through his big-government solutions. “Even former President Bill Clinton has been telling Obama to lighten up to boost the nation’s morale.” So this week, Obama used his bully pulpit to address Congress and a worried nation, trying to “balance warnings of dire circumstances against the need to inspire confidence.” It was a brilliant performance, said Roger Simon in Politico.com. Obama reminded Americans that this was not a nation of quitters, and with echoes of Churchill in his cadence, he vowed, “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.” With this speech, Obama reminded us “why he had been elected president.” 

If there was any “emotional uplift” in Obama’s address, said Jonathan Cohn in TheNewrepublic.com, I must have missed it. “After proclaiming that America would recover, Obama spent most of his speech describing his plan for making that happen.” His “business-like” recitation of his myriad bailouts and rescue programs was flat, wonkish, and hardly inspiring. That’s Obama for you, said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. Though likable and admirably cool under pressure, he is ultimately an egghead who “disdains sound bites.” People want to believe in him, but now that Obama can no longer rely on the vague, hopeful promises of the campaign, he’s having a hard time reversing the prevailing atmosphere of fear.   

You underestimate the guy, said Jonathan Alter in Newsweek. Obama has a firm and subtle grasp of the “psychological and substantive challenges of the presidency,” and he “knows that now is not the moment to cheerlead, not when the financial players are lying dazed on the field.” His game plan is to show Americans that he has a vision for how to achieve an economic recovery, and a pragmatic willingness to do whatever it takes to get there. If he succeeds, said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post, Obama will bury small-government conservatism for good, and move the political center to the left. Though his rhetoric is respectful of conservative suspicions about spending and taxes, his essential approach is liberal—with a fervent belief that communal action can solve our common problems. “He is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation.”

That’s what worries me, said David Brooks in The New York Times. Like many Americans, I admire Obama and the smart people he’s gathered around him. But they’re trying to pull off “the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes.” They want to use government to create 3.5 million jobs, revamp health care, save the auto industry, salvage the housing sector, rescue the banks, rebuild our infrastructure, and create a new energy policy—“all while cutting the deficit in half.” Are they really that smart? Is the cure for years of irresponsible spending and debt even more spending and debt? For the good of the country, I hope so—but if Obama fails, “conservatives will be called upon to restore order and sanity.”

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