Obama faces a crush of demands from interest groups

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.

The details are still being worked out, but Obama, Pelosi and other Democrats have said the package will include tax cuts — as much as $200 billion, Pelosi said — plus spending on such things as an energy efficient electricity grid and computerizing health records.

Early press is on

Almost from the moment Obama was elected, interest groups and influential advocates were turning up the heat, and stressing the urgency of their causes.

The Sunday after the Nov. 4 election, The New York Times carried an opinion piece by former vice president Gore, calling for a massive program to address climate change.

On the same day in The Washington Post, an opinion article by Kennedy was entitled, "Health Care Can't Wait."

Comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt's first months are unavoidable, but they only go so far, says Badger, whose latest book is FDR: The First Hundred Days.

No president since Franklin Roosevelt has faced such a severe economic crisis, he says, but the situation today lacks the "sheer, gut-level desperation" afoot in 1933, when Roosevelt won passage of a flurry of legislation to combat the Depression. Also, Badger says, the United States is more politically polarized today, which means Obama won't have the kind of free hand Roosevelt had.

Another constraint: dwindling government resources. With a budget deficit approaching a trillion dollars, Obama may be hamstrung on major expenditures on issues such as health care and energy — particularly after undertaking what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar stimulus package.

President Clinton had to trim his domestic agenda when he took office in 1993, after advisers persuaded him to reduce the federal deficit and shelve the stimulus package and middle-class tax cut he had campaigned on.

"I hope you're all aware we're all Eisenhower Republicans here," Clinton told aides in 1993 with angry sarcasm, according to Bob Woodward's book, The Agenda. "We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?"

And President Reagan, after cutting income taxes in 1981, was unable to "reverse the growth of government," as he had promised in his first inaugural address. He later agreed to tax increases to control rising deficits.

Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton White House, has said his boss doesn't plan to postpone fulfilling his major campaign promises, such as curbing carbon emissions and expanding health coverage.

"The crisis we have today," Emanuel said Nov. 9, "is an opportunity to finally do what Washington for years has postponed and kicked down the road."

After meeting with Gore in Chicago on Dec. 9, Obama said "the time for delay is over" on addressing greenhouse gas emissions but made no specific policy announcements. A few days later, when he announced that former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle would be his Health and Human Services secretary, Obama again promised to dramatically expand health coverage, though he didn't say when.

Obama's allies among interest groups don't seem prepared to wait. In late November, Health Care for America Now ran national television spots featuring Obama during an October campaign speech in Virginia, saying he can't fix the economy without fixing health care. "We agree," flashed the message on the screen. "We're ready."

Divided We Fail, another health care coalition, is urging members to sign a petition asking Obama "to follow through on your campaign promise and commit to making health care and financial security reform a priority in the first 100 days of your administration."

Other demands have poured in. More than 100 retired generals and admirals are calling for repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy so gay men and lesbians can serve openly — an issue that paralyzed the early months of Clinton's presidency. The American Lung Association is circulating a petition urging Obama to ban smoking in federal workplaces. The World Food Program is asking Obama to "give hunger its rightful place on the foreign policy agenda."

Amnesty International urged Obama "to show true leadership by making human rights central to his new administration," and American Rivers, which advocates for river restoration, is asking Obama to make "water infrastructure a top economic stimulus priority."

The Secular Coalition for America called on Obama to overhaul military policies to reduce what it sees as religious discrimination against non-believers in the armed forces.

"You are barraged by people who have the best idea — not a better idea, but always the best idea — about what you should do first and with what kind of intensity," says Nicholas Calio, a top lobbyist at Citigroup who headed the legislative affairs operation for President Bush and former president George H.W. Bush.

Last month, MoveOn.org held 1,200 meetings nationwide to organize a campaign to keep the heat on members of Congress to deliver on Obama's agenda, executive director Pariser says.

MoveOn.org may present an early harbinger of how the left reacts to a disconnect between campaign rhetoric and governing reality.

Pariser said he believes Obama will fulfill a promise to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.

But military analysts, including Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, call that an uncertain proposition.

Krepinevich believes Obama's goal is to draw down troops at a pace dictated by the situation on the ground, and get to a point where about 30,000 U.S. troops are advising Iraqis and available as a deterrent to violence.

"That would be a goal that all but the very hard left could sign up to," he says.

Asked about Iraq at a Dec. 1 news conference, Obama said he still believed "that 16 months is the right time frame. But as I have said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders."

He also said he would leave an undetermined number of troops for training and logistics.

The looming obstacles

Another factor is what sort of opposition Obama will face. In the first 100 days, Roosevelt was granted extraordinary deference because the public and most lawmakers felt that "this was a time when you have to stand by the president — it was almost a wartime footing," Badger said.

But conservatives and some interest groups are skeptical about Obama's plans.

Pro-business groups, including Americans for Job Security and the Employee Freedom Action Committee, have spent millions since the election on national ads against legislation, supported by Obama and most Democrats, that would make it easier for employees to join labor unions.

Stuart Butler, vice president of Domestic and Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argued in an interview that Democratic health care and climate change proposals are likely to drive up spending on health and energy, which would be an economic drag, not a stimulus.

"Of course there's going to be resistance," said Ron Pollack, who directs Families USA, which advocates for universal health care. "But in the end, the cost of inaction is just too high, and everyone gets that."

Signs are emerging about how Obama will proceed.

After meeting in mid-November with transition officials, Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in an interview, "They seem to be saying, we need to move on all fronts early."

He said he believes the Obama administration plans an economic stimulus bill in January that would include health care and environmental components.

Then, Pope said, the administration will "do the political heavy lifting between February and August" to push health care legislation, cap carbon dioxide emissions and subsidize alternative energy.

Obama spokeswoman Cutter cautioned, "We've never said we'd get all that done" by August.

In Congress, Kennedy is working on a health care plan, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who chairs the Finance Committee, recently released one of his own.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, told reporters last month they would be hard pressed to find any daylight between him and the president elect on trade or tax policy. At one point he crooned, "Whatever Obama wants" to the tune of Whatever Lola Wants.

Pope said the Obama transition is far better organized and disciplined than what he saw with former Democratic presidents Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Former California congressman Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff under Clinton, agreed.

"They seem to have a much more clear idea about the steps they need to take early on," he said of Obama's team.

"They clearly are ahead of the game."

Seeking Obama's approval

A list of some of the interest groups and their demands of President-elect Barack Obama:

Source: USA TODAY research