Now that the stimulus package has been approved, Fortune offers an inside look at Barack Obama’s economic team.
At this White House there’s no time to settle in. Even as their wall art sat in bubble wrap, Obama’s economic team was pushing through Congress the most expensive emergency spending package in the nation’s history. And they were helping Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner craft his own sweeping plan to rescue the nation’s banking and housing sectors, phase two of a $700 billion effort launched by his predecessor, Hank Paulson.
That’s just the start. The team is fast at work on health-care reform, energy independence, vast changes in banking regulations, and the possibility of a “grand bargain” to curb entitlement costs that envisions historic sacrifices on both sides of the aisle: Republicans supporting tax increases and Democrats conceding to benefits cuts. “This is not a small-ball President,” says Summers, Obama’s top economic advisor and chair of the National Economic Council. “He wants to take on the large issues.”
There is a breadth and breathlessness to these under-takings, a frenzy of policymaking that will shape the contours of America’s economic future. Top Obama advisors who talked (often as they walked) with Fortune in early February put a premium on speed – speed to catch the right moment to turn around a deepening recession, speed to take advantage of this moment of crisis to put in place a Democratic vision of government’s role, speed to pass major legislation while the President is riding high in the polls. Obama’s White House has been endlessly compared to Lincoln’s team of rivals, or J.F.K.’s best and brightest. But we might also toss in the image of Sandra Bullock trying to control a runaway busload of passengers before the bomb goes off. (That scene was of course from the movie – “Speed.”)
It’s becoming clear that the upcoming budget will drive home Obama’s desire to pursue a very ambitios agenda.
The President’s first budget, expected to be unveiled by budget director Peter Orszag within weeks, will chart much of the administration’s ambitious course beyond stimulus and TARP – and it will be a document that Obama’s own shop, not Congress, produces. “In his budget the President is going to lay down markers around his seriousness on all the major issues,” notes Summers.
It’s likely that the decisions and debates on these issues – ranging from health-care reform to what government programs should be cut to ease the deficit – will keep on coming at Congress at mind-numbing speed. The President wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m anxious to see which cuts they will be proposing. Our current budget is littered with programs that waste money, from farm subsidies, unnecessary weapons systems and much of the war on drugs. It’s also littered with tax loopholes bought by lobbyists, along with ridiculous restrictions preventing the government from negotiating bulk prices for drugs purchased by Medicare. If Obama can offer some serious cuts here, he’ll gain considerable credibility in his attempt to reorder the priorities of the nation.