Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Narrowing Obama's policy options

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News, Washington

As the presidential transition process swings into full gear, the Obama team has been examining the lessons of previous transitions, and looking to narrow its focus in the first few months in office.

President-elect Obama
President-elect Obama was asked to narrow the focus of his priorities

The president-elect has created a team with 450 people and a budget of $12m to look at his options.

With expectations very high for change on a broad front, officials are debating whether to adopt a "broad brush" approach - similar to Roosevelt's first 100 days in office, when 15 major pieces of legislation were passed - or to limit ambitions to the central issue of the campaign, the economy.

This would involve pushing for an economic stimulus package, which Mr Obama has already cited as his top priority, and trying to add other elements - such as green energy plans - only where they can be slotted in as part of that stimulus.

"Our first priority will be to stabilise the economy and get Americans back to work," according to John Podesta, the chairman of the Obama transition team.

Don't get distracted

Speaking at the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan but often left-leaning think tank, two former chiefs of staff urged President-elect Obama to narrow his focus to his top-priority issues.

Obviously, we are not going to be able to do healthcare reform in the first month or two
Steny Hoyer, House Democratic leader

Leon Panetta, chief of staff to President Clinton during his transition, warned that the Democrats got distracted by side issues such as gays in the military in 1992 and lost vital political capital.

And Ken Duberstein, who worked for President Ronald Reagan, said that it was only possible to focus on two or three big issues at a time if the new president was to be effective - a lesson applied effectively by Mr Reagan, whose transition the Obama team is studying closely.

Mr Panetta added that, given the difficult political process in Washington, it would take at least six months even to get the first set of priorities done.

A narrowly focused approach would also have the advantage of bipartisanship, according to Robert Shapiro, an economic adviser to President Clinton.

He said that green energy initiatives, such as developing hybrid cars and a green energy grid, would attract support from Republicans interested in establishing energy independence, as well as Democrats who want to protect the environment.

And they could create jobs, a key consideration in any new programme with 10 million Americans now out of work.

Healthcare delay

The main casualty of the new approach may be healthcare reform, which Mr Obama talked about in moving terms during the campaign.

John Podesta
For John Podesta of the transition team the economy is the top priority
House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer told reporters: "Obviously, we are not going to be able to do healthcare reform in the first month or two."

Instead, the Democrats in Congress may want to pass an expansion of the state child health insurance programme, which provides government health insurance for low income families, and was vetoed by President Bush.

President-elect Obama may be able to present this as a down payment on full healthcare reform.

To succeed in attracting bipartisan support for healthcare reform, the new president will have to tackle the issue of rising costs, which threaten the federal budget in the long term, as well as moving to cover more of those who currently lack health coverage, as he promised in his campaign.

Infrastructure investment

Two other elements of the president-elect's plans could also be folded into an economic stimulus plan.

Rebuilding infrastructure, such as bridges and roads, would also be attractive to Democrats looking for ways to put people to work, as well as make long-term investments in the economy.

The President-elect may have to put several proposals on the back burner, which will upset some of his most keen supporters
And Mr Obama's proposed tax cut for the middle class, which involves a refundable tax credit of $1,000 per family, or $500 per individual, could attract Republican support from those who find it difficult to swallow further spending increases.

This would be in addition to Mr Obama's plan to let the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich expire in 2010, while extending them for households earning under $250,000.

Special interests

However, the president-elect may have to put several proposals on the back burner, which will upset some of his most keen supporters.

Unions are pressing for a new, more liberal law to force companies to recognise unions when they have signed up a majority of members, but before there is a formal election. The business lobby is fiercely opposed to this plan, which it says will make things worse in the recession.

Many Democrats are urging Mr Obama to revive the plan for comprehensive immigration reform which died in the last Congress.

Republican opposition to this measure led many Hispanics to support the Democrats, and Simon Rosenberg, of the New Democrat Network, believes that taking a strong stand on this issue is the key to ensuring that this constituency remains Democratic in the future.

voters' good wishes
Expectations from many voters are very high

However, the controversial nature of this proposal last time suggests that the president-elect, if he is looking for early victories, will wait before tackling this issue again.

Mr Obama has also pledged to help improve US education, with proposals ranging from more help to pay for college tuition, to additional funds for early childhood education.

But the plans are expensive, and as yet the Democrats have not indicated how they would pay for them.

In a pre-election interview with CNN, President-elect Obama indicated that this may not be in the top three priorities in his first days in office.

Pragmatic approach

Everything in the first days of the president-elect's approach indicates that he is bringing a deliberative and systematic style to his decision-making - a sharp contrast to the "sloppiness" in the approach of the last Democrat in the White House, according to Mr Rosenberg, who worked in the Clinton war room.

Mr Obama's cool and unflappable approach to his campaign, where his team stuck to their message and their strategy, produced dividends in the election.

If he can do the same in the transition, he may be able to get through what is often the most difficult period for a new president and establish his authority in Congress and the country.

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