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Obama's Challenge

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Beginning tomorrow, President-elect Obama will unveil his economic recovery platform. Watch and see how he juggles this challenge: He's trying to be transformational, a change agent -- but he's also trying to keep the existing economic structure from falling apart. This tension was reflected in two statements he made just yesterday. One focused on the need to "break the momentum of this recession." That takes him in the direction of greater government investment. The other was that the public, in voting for change, "were demanding that we restore a sense of responsibility and prudence to how we run our government." That's a clear call for fiscal restraint.

That same dilemma runs through everything he faces. He wants to invest in the infrastructure needed to transform the American economy -- renewable energy; a smart grid; digitized health-care records; high-performance, low-carbon public buildings; innovative transit options. But he needs projects that are "shovel ready" -- and, too often, what's "shovel ready" but not already under construction is not the innovative, high payoff stuff but the pork: the bridges to nowhere, the roads to sprawl.

He'd probably love to help low-income Americans pay their heating bills by retrofitting their homes for efficiency -- but in the short term he's got to help them pay for those overly high heating bills in a decidedly non-transformative way: by funding subsidies for the fuel they'll need this winter, even if much of that fuel could be saved through retrofitting by next winter. Wind and solar power a big part of his vision of the future -- but they're not easy to scale up fast enough to create jobs in the next six months, because the supply chains that provide the machinery aren't big enough yet.

Above all, Obama's inherited a government badly broken by eight years of abuse -- but that government is the only instrument he has to get the job done. This dilemma isn't new -- Franklin Roosevelt faced it during the Great Depression. In The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alter describes how when Roosevelt decided to launch the Civilian Conservation Corps by hiring 250,000 young men to work on the land in a matter of months, he was repeatedly told, "it can't be done." FDR refused to take "no" for an answer: "The more his cabinet said no, the more Roosevelt said yes." He gave the job to reluctant Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who later said "he put the dynamite under the people who had to do the job..." But Roosevelt did more than motivate -- he dug into the bureaucracy and found the people who could get the job done. He drew organization charts, and personally checked "on the location, scope etc. of the camps..."

At some point, my gut tells me, Obama will soon face a similar challenge. To combine transformation with recovery, he'll need to break the rules and demand the impossible. To get it, he'll need to engage much more deeply than his cabinet and staff will want -- and that's when America will learn whether President Obama is just good -- or really, really superb.