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Obama Can Talk, But Can He Walk?

This story was written by CNET's Declan McCullagh.

Barack Obama took the oath of office Tuesday with his hand on Abraham Lincoln's bible, a symbol of the historic beginning of his presidency. Even amid dark economic times - or perhaps because of them - the outpouring of goodwill and the sense of expectation has been astounding. The crowds thronging Pennsylvania Avenue showed it.

The celebrations in cities around the country showed it. So did a recent CBS News/New York Times poll suggesting that 68 percent of Americans believe Obama will be a good or very good president.

After the inaugural parties are over, though, and after the millions of visitors who shivered for hours on the National Mall head home, the task of governing begins.

Even today, we have only a hazy idea of how Obama will approach it: his voting record was the most liberal in the Senate, but his personnel choices over the last two months have signaled a more moderate approach. The sobering truth is that on his first challenge - the economy - there's little that Obama can do right away.

The Federal Reserve has already lowered interest rates almost as far as possible in part to encourage Americans to continue to borrow, which is a little like offering another hit to a meth addict. Bad investments made during the boom need to be liquidated; government action will most likely slow down that vital process.

Contrary to what politicians claim, the Democrats' half-trillion in proposed spending will take years to flow through the economy, with only a small fraction spent by the end of the 2009 fiscal year.

That's according to no less an authority than the Congressional Budget Office.

Then there's the corruption and waste that tend to accompany massive government projects with billion-dollar price tags attached to them. Does nobody remember the government's estimate that $8.8 billion was stolen or otherwise unaccounted for in Iraq? (See this 60 Minutes report.)

To Obama's credit, he seems to recognize the limits of deficit spending. The 258-page draft bill that was published last week includes $275 billion in tax cuts aimed at business and some (but hardly all) Americans. His own pick for top economic advisor, Berkeley professor Christina Romer, has estimated that a dollar of tax cuts raises economic output by about $3. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to raise your taxes by repealing the Bush tax cuts before they expire in 2010. Lawrence Summers, Obama's pick for director of the National Economic Council, doesn't seem to agree.

This points to a more pragmatic approach than many liberal Democrats, and even some Republicans, would have him take. Other Obama personnel choices have been equally unpredictable.

There's Paul Volcker, chairman of the new Economic Recovery Advisory Board and someone best known for taking an ax to inflation in the early 1980s and publicly worrying about a weak dollar. Treasury Secretary-designate Tim Geithner, on the other hand, seems to be a fan of bailouts, cheap money, and creative interpretations of 1099 forms.

Eric Holder, Obama's choice for attorney general, is another puzzle. As a partner at the Covington and Burling law firm, he generally represented corporate clients. Last year, though, he signed a brief saying the Second Amendment protected only a "collective" right; as a Clinton administration official he supported expansive anti-gun laws including federal licensing of handgun owners and national gun registration.

Last month the Brady Campaign offered similar suggestions.

These are all points that legislators should explore during the nominees' Senate confirmation hearings. In his inaugural address, Obama said: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

We should applaud Obama's call for an "era of responsibility." But it remains to be seen if he's serious - and, if so, how he and his advisers will square that rhetoric with the reality of Washington's newfound love of bailouts.

Is bailing out failing companies like General Motors a way to teach "responsibility," especially when rivals who didn't lobby for a handout are now at a competitive disadvantage? Should responsible homeowners be taxed to bail out speculators?

How about the long line of industries queuing up for bailouts? Does rewarding irresponsible behavior encourage responsibility?

By an overwhelming margin, Americans have given Obama a chance to do good by them. Soon we'll know whether the new president's policies live up to his rhetoric.

Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. He previously was Wired's Washington bureau chief and a reporter for and Time magazine in Washington, D.C. He has taught journalism, public policy, and First Amendment law. He is an occasional programmer, avid analog and digital photographer, and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. His e-mail address is
By Declan McCullagh
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