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Obama’s jenga agenda

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tuesday night, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress to put forth his agenda for the coming months and years. The plan was incredibly ambitious, outlining not only a plan for a revival of the short-term economy, but also imagining future reforms for education, energy and healthcare and greatly reducing the Federal deficit.

The first half of the speech was largely focused on the short-term economic woes facing the administration. He explained some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and lauded the speed with which it was passed. He attempted to explain the government’s actions in “bailing out” banks and financial institutions, and why these actions were necessary for the average American. And he, in his first bold proclamation of the address, urged congress to quickly begin work on a new legislative regulatory framework for the financial system. Even this widely supported endeavor (in this economics climate, at least) will be very difficult to pass quickly or easily.

Obama continued explaining that the best gifts one generation can give to the next are the investments in the future. With this in mind, he outlined health care, education and energy as the most important investments.

He began with energy. He noted that in three decades of talking, there has been little progress in energy independence. The stimulus package contains a considerable amount of money for renewable energy programs. Not settling, Obama exhorted congress to find him a market-based cap and trade system that would help make alternative energy a profitable industry.

In the education department, Obama noted, correctly, that our educational edge has dulled over the last decades and that a retooling of the system is necessary. The United States rate of high school graduates has dropped to ninth among industrial countries, and the rate of college graduates has fallen to 10th. In an economy that is largely based on educated and trained professionals, in order to grow there has to be more, better educated people.

And finally, Obama acknowledged the elephant in the room in terms of budget problems: health care. Federal health care, namely Medicare and Medicaid, accounts for 4 percent of the US GDP, and is expected to more than double in the next 20 years. Not only did he pledge to lower costs through pushing for emergency medical records, but also in one of the few poorly worded phrases of the night, seemed to have promised a cure for cancer.

As the speech progressed and grew ever more ambitious, I began to think back to the game everyone played at least once growing up. Jenga was a game of skill, focus and daring. As the game progresses, it becomes much harder to play. Each block that is pulled out is stacked on top, and the tower’s integrity is even further compromised.

Obama built himself a Jenga tower with this speech. He started at the bottom: layering bank refinancing and loan help for homeowners with new regulatory standards and job creation. Talk of education reform added a few more blocks, as did that cap and trade energy reform. Health care, an issue that has derailed the two previous administrations agendas, added an entire midsection to the tower.

Each policy goal and specific idea added blocks and rows to the agenda, and as if a very lofty tower were not sufficient, Obama added that the deficit would be thoroughly examined and trimmed in his first term. This did not add bricks to the tower as much as it limited which blocks could even be pulled. It is as if Obama is allowing himself only to pull the middle blocks out of the tower. Although this would not be an issue for the first couple of efforts, as the final reforms, laws and ideas are attempted, the tower will begin to sway, and perhaps even collapse under its own weight. So is the case with the Obama agenda.

It is certainly my hope that Obama succeeds in all of these efforts. Each one is more than necessary to grow as a nation in an increasingly more competitive world. But with issues as complicated and often controversial as health care, social security, financial regulation and education, I can’t help but imagine that an agenda built on all of these issues is prone to fail at some point in time.

However, Obama, reminiscent of his own Inauguration speech, recalled moments in our history where great progress followed great hardship. He spoke of the transcontinental railroad built in the throes of the Civil war, and talked about the growth of the public school system following the industrial revolution. He called to mind the G.I. Bill and the growth of university level education following the Second World War. As always, Obama eloquently provided a history of our country and attempted to let us imagine where we could fit in the story. He provides examples where American has risen to the occasisons, and for our own sakes, I hope, in this sense, that history repeats itself.

Jason Coleman is a junior accounting major. He can be contacted at

[email protected]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not

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