Obama faces a crush of demands from interest groups

ByABC News
December 16, 2008, 11:48 PM

WASHINGTON -- Al Gore wants quick action on climate change. Sen. Edward Kennedy says health care reform can't wait. Labor unions want a bill making it easier to organize.

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for the immediate closure of the military's prison for foreign terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org urges a steady troop withdrawal from Iraq. The National Governors Association is pleading for billions in aid to states, pronto.

And, by the way, Mr. President-elect, the American Lung Association would like you to make all federal work sites smoke-free.

New administrations always face a cacophony of competing demands, but few presidents have been confronted with the sort of urgent and varied pleas being made to Barack Obama, amid two wars and the worst economic crisis in generations, says Anthony Badger, a University of Cambridge historian of American politics.

After eight years of a Republican president whose central domestic policy was tax cuts, Americans who want a more activist government are aching to see their causes addressed. During the campaign, Obama told many of them just what they wanted to hear. The question now is which pledges Obama tackles first, which ones have to wait and which ones will survive contact with Congress and special interest groups in Washington.

"He's under extraordinary pressure to be all things to all people, and he's going to find that very difficult to manage during his first 100 days," says New York University political science professor Paul Light, who specializes in the workings of the federal government. "There are a lot of people coming to him with checklists of issues they care about, but Congress is not capable of handling a mass rush of legislation."

Others, such as MoveOn.org executive director Eli Pariser, say that view underestimates the sense of urgency created by the economic crisis, the broken health care system and the consensus for protecting the climate.

The rallying cry among left-leaning interest groups, including the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO, is that fixing the economy means tackling health care the costs of which are hurting everyone from unemployed workers to General Motors and addressing climate change by subsidizing clean energy to create "green" jobs.

"You have a very popular president elected with a mandate for change, and an unprecedented organized movement of people back home working to make that change happen," Pariser says. "I don't think we've ever seen that before."

The government can do more than one big thing at a time, says Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now, a coalition of unions and progressive groups. "There's no reason that Congress can only do health care, only do climate change."

Obama has not discussed the timing of his agenda, and his aides aren't ready to, spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter says.

The one thing Obama and congressional Democrats have been clear about is that they intend to pass a package of spending and tax cuts as early as January.

That so-called stimulus package, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday could be $600 billion, is designed to jump-start the economy, begin fulfilling Obama's pledge of a middle-class tax cut and set the groundwork for transforming the energy and health-care sectors.