We Can’t Wait for Obama’s Economic Team to Take the Field

Posted December 8, 2008 at 1:21pm

President-elect Barack Obama keeps reminding us that we only have one president at a time in America. But lately I’ve been wondering if we have even one.

President George W. Bush is all but invisible as he slouches to the finish line and his Treasury Department, lurching from bailout to bailout, flip-flops on the best way to tackle the financial crisis destroying our economy.

We can only pray that Friday’s news from the Labor Department that more than 533,000 people lost their jobs in November — the highest single-month job loss since December 1974 — rattles the president enough to reverse his opposition to an economic recovery bill that will immediately create jobs, strengthen the economy, provide emergency food assistance to the increasing number of families struggling to feed their children and prevent the loss of health care coverage due to state budget cuts.

The House passed the bill two months ago, so I don’t know what GOP Senators are waiting for — unless they, like the president, are counting down the days before the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress restart the government in January.

Wake up, Congress! Over the past three months alone, 1.2 million workers have lost jobs. The unemployment rate has shot up to 6.7 percent. The underemployment rate has jumped to 12.5 percent, the highest level in the history of the measure. About 10.3 million men and women are looking for jobs. And the lame-duck Bush administration fiddles while America burns.

Obama, while only president-elect, has managed to impress a jittery market by naming former New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner to head Treasury, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to head his Economic Recovery Board, former Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag as his budget director, and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers as his chief economic adviser within the White House, where he will head Obama’s National Economic Council.

Right out of the gate, the seasoned team Obama has put together must offer solutions that fit the operatic scale of this crisis. Yet I am becoming increasingly concerned that the economy may be beyond repair in the short term; the current president has wasted valuable time, and what little he has done has been done poorly.

Summers, a former president of Harvard University, will lead the team that coordinates across all agencies the federal response to the economic meltdown, including Obama’s plan to create or save 2.5 million jobs by rebuilding infrastructure, modernizing schools, developing alternative energy sources and building more efficient cars.

But even with Orszag, a savvy operative who knows every line, nook and cranny of waste and will now be in charge of combing through the federal budget, Obama will have his hands full managing expectations from a restless public and Congressional barons who will fiercely try to protect their own fiefdoms.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), Obama’s choice as White House chief of staff, must be prepared to work hand in glove with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Nevertheless, the iron fist in Emanuel’s not-so-velvet glove will come in handy.

In addition, Obama cannot and must not placate interest groups already jockeying for the power to be gained with a new administration. This prescriptive, for many of us liberals and progressives, will be a bitter pill to swallow. We have waited so long to help improve the living standards of the millions left behind during eight long years of drought and indifference. Yet the new administration must come up with a bold plan that will address the scale of the problem without resorting to placating every interest group.

The country is in a financial freefall. The last thing Obama needs is the burden of fulfilling someone else’s shopping list without the funds to pay for it. For two consecutive elections in a row, voters have rejected the GOP “borrow and spend” team that fed fat-cat lobbyists slurping away at the public trough. More of the same is not what we voted for last month.

Obama’s yardstick of excellence and experience in choosing his team is a refreshing and confidence-building tonic for a worried nation reeling from the price it is now paying for a White House team chosen solely for its personal loyalty and political ideology.

A golden opportunity to change course and right the ship of state awaits a Democratic-controlled Congress willing to work responsibly with Republicans and a new administration, industries, small businesses, and state governments if, and only if, they all work together to do what’s right.

And if they can’t agree on what’s right, then just ask us, the American people. We’ll tell ’em. Let’s just hope this time they listen to us.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.