Because reform is hard, the natural tendency of the political system is to spend now, change later. Obama is right to recognize the need to reform as you go. As he said last week, "It is time to trade old habits for a new spirit of responsibility."
While it will be nice to have another Great Communicator as president, we need a Grand Bargainer even more. Down the road, on every domestic front, a grand and necessary bargain is waiting to happen. Obama has already identified quite a few: paying teachers more in return for measuring performance; expanding access to health care in return for reforms and innovations that hold costs down; increasing energy efficiency and alternatives in return for making sure energy reflects the costs and consequences of carbon emissions; opening college to all in return for asking them to earn their way through it with work or service; passing a rescue package that keeps the financial system sound in return for overhauling financial oversight and regulation; and promoting an economic recovery plan that helps create millions of jobs in return for new transparency in how the money is spent and new accountability for results.
One reform battle the Obama administration will soon face is making clear to Congress that just because we need to run a big deficit this year to ensure a recovery doesn't mean that all existing spending is a good idea. As Obama promised in his economic speech at George Mason, "We will launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate unwise and unnecessary spending that has never been more unaffordable for our nation and our children's future than it is right now. We have to make tough choices and smart investments today so that, as the economy recovers, the deficits start coming down. We cannot have a solid recovery if our people and our businesses don't have confidence that we're getting our fiscal house in order."
While pragmatism, post-partisanship, and reform seem to come naturally to Obama, all of them defy the laws of political gravity in Washington, and none of them will be easy. The good news is that if the Obama administration can stick to those principles, each tenet will reinforce the other in a virtuous circle. Doing what works will help disarm attacks and win support from unexpected quarters. Tamping down partisan skirmishes will help put sweeping reforms within reach. Above all, a grand bargain that combines the impact of more resources with more reform will make it possible to solve more problems—which is what we all bargained for from a president in the first place.
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