Officials are most pessimistic about his energy and global warming plan, with many aides doubting he will win passage of a cap-and-trade emissions reduction system, which is strongly opposed by business and Republicans.
The White House is most optimistic for passage this year of his plans to overhaul the nation’s financial regulations, and aides also see a strong chance that a gradual version of his health care overhaul will get through Congress this fall.
Congressional and administration aides agree that none of his three biggest agenda items is likely to achieve final passage before this fall.
The officials said none of this is catching them by surprise: Obama knew Congress has limited bandwidth, and he simply wanted to get the wheels of government turning on every big issue this year. A big part of their communication strategy will now focus on highlighting incremental progress on the Obama agenda, to show people Washington is working again.
The White House’s handicapping for three centerpiece proposals: Financial-services reform has “a very good chance.” Health care “has a lot of momentum behind it.” And energy “got off to a great start” with the introduction last week of a model bill by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).
That’s a best-case scenario. Obama aides admit they don’t yet know the answer to one of the big questions of his first year: Can Capitol Hill swallow an agenda of this cost and heft, at a time when the country is suffering a catastrophic economic slowdown?
“There’s no question: It’s a lot,” said one administration official. “But he’s made the point that you’ve got to at least try to do this — and do as much as you can, now — because it’s all interrelated and all helps the economy.”
The new pace is a big change. Obama had signed twice as many bills as his two most recent predecessors by the time he addressed Congress for the first time, with progress being greased by his huge popularity, the large Democratic majorities and the impetus of a crushing recession.
“I felt like we were at the hoop every day,” said a top White House official.
Now Congress will begin tackling his legislation with the usual glacial work of subcommittees and committees, trying to solve three supremely complex policy puzzles all at once.
The administration’s new realism is reflected in aides’ assessment of the budgets passed by the House and Senate, which did not specifically embrace some Obama priorities but left room to maneuver.
“It makes it possible to do things,” a West Wing official said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll get it. But we’re in the game.”
Administration officials are very anxious to continue showing progress, since Obama was elected to bring change. So they now plan to focus on incremental victories, calling attention to committee action on health care and energy so that the public can see the wheels of government turning —real change at a time when so many Americans are disillusioned by gridlock.
The White House also will trumpet smaller bills like a reform of the government procurement process.
Obama is likely to hold major signing ceremonies for more modest measures such as ones governing national service and tobacco. They’re not the whole enchilada. But the White House views them as an encouraging appetizer.
And House Democrats plan to mix in several measures to protect consumers, including limitations on pay-day lenders and more protections for credit cardholders.
Congressional official say the legislative grind will help “buy time” for the economy to recover, before the public loses patience with Obama.
“You need credibility with the public that we get it, and we do: It’s going to take some time,” one official said. “Even though we think that the stuff we have passed and put in place is going to work, it’s not going to work right away, and the jobs are not going to come back right away. That’s just the reality.”
Obama officials realize that reform of the nation’s regulation of banks and other financial institutions — the measure most certain to pass — isn’t a particularly sexy accomplishment.
But Democrats will style it as “looking out for the consumer and helping the little guy,” one aide said. “We have to put some rules in the road on these financial companies and try to help the middle class and the consumers.”
On health care, Obama aides are cheered by the plan in the House to have three committees produce one bill, a more streamlined process than was used under President Bill Clinton in 1993, when the process famously flamed out.
So here’s the administration’s dream timetable: By the August recess, House and Senate committees will have sent health care bills to the floor and Waxman’s House committee will have reported out a comprehensive energy bill.
Officials are just aiming for “substantial progress” on financial regulations.
“I don’t know if that gets off the House and Senate floor by August,” an aide said. “But it’ll be done this year. I just don’t know that everything can be done in those 13 [legislative work] weeks.”
One of Obama’s top aides projected the coolness that his boss was famous for on the campaign trail.
“I try not to get optimistic or pessimistic,” the official said. “I just try to look at it as: Are we making progress? And I just continually see progress.”
After a couple of death-defying months, “no-drama Obama” tackles the Capitol Hill slog.