The unbearable lightness of Peggy Noonan

I enjoy reading Peggy Noonan because she’s never shy about her point of view. She also writes beautifully.

That said, for every great column, she produces at least two clunkers. Today’s column, with the subtitle of “The unbearable lightness of Obama’s administration,” is particularly bizarre. Here’s the introduction.

He is willowy when people yearn for solid, reed-like where they hope for substantial, a bright older brother when they want Papa, cool where they probably prefer warmth. All of which may or may not hurt Barack Obama in time. Lincoln was rawboned, prone to the blues and freakishly tall, with a new-grown beard that refused to become an assertion and remained, for four years, a mere and constant follicular attempt. And he did OK.

Such impressions—coolness, slightness—can come to matter only if they capture or express some larger or more meaningful truth. At the moment they connect, for me, to something insubstantial and weightless in the administration’s economic pronouncements and policies. The president seems everywhere and nowhere, not fully focused on the matters at hand. He’s trying to keep up with the news cycle with less and less to say. “I am angry” about AIG’s bonuses. The administration seems buffeted, ad hoc. Policy seems makeshift, provisional. James K. Galbraith captures some of this in The Washington Monthly: “The president has an economic program. But there is, so far, no clear statement of the thinking behind the program.”

What a jumbled mess. She sounds like all those journalists who were lecturing Obama early in the campaign that he had no chance of winning if he stayed calm and refused to go negative on Hillary.

She asserts there’s “something insubstantial and weightless in the administration’s economic pronouncements and policies,” when liberals and conservatives recognize that Barack Obama has proposed the most daring and ambitious budget of our generation. Conservatives hate the budget for that very reason – Obama wants to fundamentally change how we meet the challenges of health care, energy and education. Somehow, Peggy Noonan has missed all that, getting distracted by the daily Washington soap opera that plays out on cable TV.

Barack Obama is trying to put out a bonfire cause by years of irresponsible behavior in Washington and on Wall Street. His critics are howling that he hasn’t snapped his fingers and slayed this economic monster with a silver bullet. The bottom line is this – Obama and Bernanke have put together a sensible package of programs that just might get us out of this mess. Of course, Ms. Noonan has nothing to say about the actual substance.

She isn’t comfortable with Obama’s style, probably because she’s been in Washington so long she can’t process anything other than the scripted nonsense of previous administrations. She shouldn’t confuse message discipline with sound policy. Obama is selling his policies on his terms, and he refuses to treat the American people like idiots. Critics might quip that he comes across as “professorial,” but many Americans appreciate a President who doesn’t try to turn every policy proposal into a dumbed-down soundbite.

  

Geithner’s testimony

Expectations were justifiably pretty low for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner based on his prior performances, but I’ve been impressed with his testimony today as he explains the Obama administration’s budget in front of the House Ways and Means Committee. He has complete command of the issues, and he has been able to explain the strategy behind the plan.

The Obama administration needs effective surrogates to sell the President’s economic plan, and Geithner’s testimony today suggests he will be more effective than he was in the past.

  

Cutting Cold-War weapons systems

When Barack Obama kept Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, most liberals were disappointed, and the news media focused on how this might impact Obama’s decisions regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While those issues are certainly important, Obama and Gates will be embarking on a mission to radically change the way the United States purchases military equipment.

But if you are a defense contractor who has enjoyed a decade of bottomless Pentagon funding, it was Gates’ comments about a struggle much closer to home that are keeping you up at night. “The spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing,” he said. “With two major campaigns ongoing, the economic crisis and resulting budget pressures will force hard choices on this department.”

Gates, the U.S.’s 22nd Defense Secretary, has declared a low-key war against the military services and the way they develop and buy the weapons they use to defend the nation. Up until now, he has done that mostly by jawboning: The U.S. can’t “eliminate national-security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything,” Gates says in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. That futile quest has led to weapons that “have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build and are being fielded in ever dwindling quantities.”

But his war of words is about to become very real. As he prepares a budget for next year, Gates must decide the fate of a number of fantastically expensive weapons programs the military services say they need. He can’t fund them all–and might be wise to take a knife to them all. In this, Gates has little choice: the military’s annual budget has finished growing, and the billions it once imagined it might spend on future weapons have evaporated. So cuts–and big ones–are coming, and Gates will be the man who makes them.

Though Gates was hired by George W. Bush to clean up the mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates’ greatest legacy may come in what he calls a “strategic reshaping” that better outfits the U.S. military to wage coming wars. Future weapons buys must “be driven more by the actual capabilities of potential adversaries,” Gates told Congress a few weeks ago, “and less by what is technologically feasible given unlimited time and resources.” Pentagon procurement, he said, is plagued by a “risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability and sometimes adversarial relationships within the Department of Defense.”

With the release today of Barack Obama’s budget outline, we’re seeing that Obama and Gates are serious about these changes. You’re also hearing Obama talk about how we can’t afford any more “Cold War” weapons systems.

The articles linked above is worth a read. It discusses specific weapons systems, and the stunning costs associated with systems that we no longer need and may be obsolete in a world where inexpensive drones can do the job of piloted planes.

This will not be an easy fight. The problem is that Congress often overrides the needs and requests of the military. Many conservative Senators will scream about wasteful spending, but then they will defend grossly expensive weapons systems if it affects jobs in their districts. Democrats do the same thing.

Based on the “Cold War” rhetoric, it looks like Obama is ready for a fight. He should bring along enough Democrats, especially if they have to choose between health care and these weapons systems.

  

Broder is shocked by Obama’s ambitious agenda

David Broder has been in Washington for a long time, and President Obama seems to have stunned him with the breadth and boldness of his agenda. Broder sees Obama taking on significant risks, and he’s right about that. Obama doesn’t want to play it safe – he wants to seize the moment and make real efforts to solve long-standing problems.

The size of the gamble that President Obama is taking every day is simply staggering. What came through in his speech to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night was a dramatic reminder of the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table in his first month in office, putting at risk the future well-being of the country and the Democratic Party’s control of Washington.

It was also, and even more significantly, a measure of the degree to which he has taken personal responsibility for delivering on one of the most ambitious agendas any newly inaugurated president has ever announced.

Most politicians, facing an economic crisis as deep as this one — the threatened collapse of the job market and manufacturing, retail and credit systems here at home, along with the staggering, unprecedented costs of the attempted rescue efforts — would happily postpone tackling anything else.

But not Obama.

Instead, no sooner had he finished describing his plans for spurring economic recovery and shoring up the crippled automotive and banking industries, he was off to the races, outlining his ambitions for overhauling energy, health care and education.

The House chamber was filled with veteran legislators who have spent decades wrestling with each of those issues. They know how maddeningly difficult it has been to cobble together a coalition large enough to pass a significant education, health care or energy bill.

And here stood Obama, challenging them to do all three, at a time when trillions of borrowed dollars already have been committed to short-term economic rescue schemes and when new taxes risk stunting any recovery.

Is he naive? Does he not understand the political challenge he is inviting?

Broder ends this column with the following line: “When we elected Obama, we didn’t know what a gambler we were getting.”

In one sense, he shouldn’t be surprised. Obama was clear about all these initiatives during the campaign. On the other hand, Broder is used to seeing politicians who are too worried about politics and too timid to take bold chances. Obama is not one of those politicians.

  

They’re just getting started

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.

  

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