The Questions Obama Needs to Answer

By Dan Froomkin
10:00 AM ET, 02/ 5/2009

Obama at the White House yesterday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama and his team are finally making a greater effort to answer the critiques -- large, small, legitimate and absurd -- that threaten to block or delay action that he says is imperative to avoid economic catastrophe. See, for instance, Obama's Washington Post op-ed today. Also see David Leonhardt's piece in the New York Times yesterday. Leonhardt insisted on -- and got -- substantive responses from Obama aides to two of the more serious criticisms.

But Obama still has some work to do. Part of his winning style during the campaign was that he didn't just announce his positions, he explained his thinking. As George Packer blogged for the New Yorker on Inauguration Day, "what he’s always been is a great explainer, who pays the rest of us the highest compliment — the appeal to reason."

Obama stepped up his rhetoric again yesterday. "[M]ake no mistake: A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future," he said, expressing complete certainty that the plan "can save or create more than three million jobs, doing things that will strengthen our country for years to come."

But he needs to explain in greater depth why he's so sure he's right. Sure, many Americans have great confidence in him at this point. But the stimulus is too big a deal to take on faith.

How did Obama reach the conclusions that he did -- from the big picture to the little? Why is he so sure things are that dire? Why is he so sure this will help?

Why isn't the plan bigger? Why isn't it smaller? How did he conclude that this is the right balance between short-term job stimulus and long-term strategy? Why not separate the two? Why, given some criticisms from experts with no axe to grind, has he come to the conclusion that this package is good enough, rather than in need of major surgery?

Why is he letting Congress turn this into something typically Congressional -- i.e. messy -- rather than using his political clout to dictate the terms? Since he acknowledges that the plan can be improved, why doesn't he publicly and explicitly state how? What is his litmus test for individual projects that are part of the overall plan? (Does he have one?) It's too late for listening now: What suggestions that he's heard does he think are worth taking?

What does he say to Republicans who worry this is the return of a permanent big government?

Obama needs to have a long heart-to-heart with the American people, either in a television address or in a serious, prolonged sit-down interview. And that interview shouldn't be with a blow-dried anchor or a political obsessive, but with someone who knows a lot about the economy and will push him beyond what have now become familiar sound bites, into a more persuasive terrain where he explains his reasoning and describes how he has reached his conclusions.

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