During the campaign, Barack Obama invoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in calling for transformational change. "I am running because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now,' " Obama said in South Carolina on Nov. 3, 2007. "I am running because I do believe there's such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost here."
During his first five months as president, Obama has demonstrated how seriously he takes this commitment. Brushing aside criticism from Washington veterans that he is overloading the capital's political circuits, he is alarming both allies and adversaries with his push for change, the faster, the better.
His critics have a point. His challenge to the status quo may be causing too many powerful forces to line up against him, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, members of the medical establishment, the conservative power structure in Washington, and Rush Limbaugh and his cohorts in the punditocracy of the right. If Obama fails to overcome them, his credibility could be shattered, and his dreams of change could evaporate.
Obama has three main goals for 2009. He is pushing for an overhaul of the healthcare system, for passage of a far-reaching energy bill, and for a new regulatory structure for the financial industry. All will require congressional action. Tackling any one of those issues would be a huge undertaking. Tackling all three at once is herculean.
His first priority is fixing healthcare. "We can't not do healthcare reform, because healthcare costs are breaking families, businesses, and the federal government," says White House counselor David Axelrod. "So if we don't do significant healthcare reform, we're on a catastrophic course. What that means is that we have to put a lot of effort into not just expanding coverage but in reducing the costs of healthcare, taking out the sort of redundancies and waste and inside trading and so on that have contributed to this untenable inflation in healthcare costs for two decades."
At a town-hall meeting in Green Bay, Wis., June 11, Obama said the healthcare system costs so much and excludes so many that it has become a crisis. "We have reached a point where doing nothing about the cost of healthcare is no longer an option," Obama said. Obama is pushing Congress to pass healthcare legislation by late summer or early fall.
This week, the president added another initiative to the fast track: revamping the financial-services industry. Excesses in that sector are widely blamed for contributing to the financial meltdown of the past year, and Obama and his aides argue that, again, they have had no choice but to move quickly to mend the system. Among his proposals are authorizing the Federal Reserve to supervise "nonbank" financial institutions, setting up a "Council of Regulators" to coordinate the activities of a dozen separate regulatory agencies, and creating a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency to shield everyday people from abuses. Obama hopes Congress will approve the massive regulatory bill by year's end.
In addition, Obama aims to win passage for energy and climate-change legislation this year, designed to move America away from overreliance on foreign oil and to encourage the use of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power. These have been the policy goals of administrations going back to Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, but no one has found a way to persuade Congress to make the required alterations in Americans' lifestyles. It's unclear whether Obama will do much better, but he is intent on trying.
And don't forget Obama's goal of winning Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor by early autumn, which will absorb much of the Senate's time when hearings start in July.
Of course, all of his domestic plans could be superseded by threats from abroad. That became clear this week when protests and riots dominated the headlines from Iran in the wake of that nation's disputed presidential election. And every recent president has had to deal with tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, the rogue regime in North Korea, and, of course, international terrorism.