Program Note: Tune in to hear more from David Gergen tonight on the AC360° at 10 p.m. ET. And watch him on the CNN Money Summit on Friday at 11 p.m. ET.
David Gergen | Bio
CNN Senior Political Analyst
This is a good moment to look ahead at the extraordinary challenges facing President Obama and how he and his team will try to solve them. Based on what has appeared in the public press as well as personal conversations in Washington, here is my best take:
In winning passage of the stimulus package, the President managed his way successfully through his first storm but he and his team recognize there are darker, more treacherous ones ahead. The economy has been deteriorating at such an accelerating rate in recent months that the administration had to expand the size of the stimulus package far beyond what they originally envisioned. If the economy continues to sink – and signs around the globe point in that direction – even this package will not be big enough. And economists of almost every stripe complain that its impact was weakened during the political wrangling.
For now, administration insiders believe that the package will begin to help quickly in saving jobs that might have been lost (e.g., with infusions of fresh money, state governments will not have to fire as many people). But insiders are not really expecting the stimulus to start creating many new jobs - or at least those that will show up in statistics – until early next year. Moreover, they recognize that they may have to come back for additional installments of stimulus in the months ahead. No future package should be as large, but there is likely to be a clear need to expand unemployment benefits again. So, look for more stimulus down the road – we just don't know how much.
Here, in a nutshell, is a take on other issues rushing at the administration:
The auto crisis – As General Motors and Chrysler send their reports to Washington, scheduled today, there is a sense in the administration that no good choices lie ahead. The options are likely to boil down to a big, new infusion of money from the feds or a structured bankruptcy of the companies. Either way, there will be pain for auto workers, creditors, shareholders and others. In contrast to a few weeks ago, when the Obama team seemed extremely reluctant to allow a structured bankruptcy, I sense that they may be more open to the idea today. The fact that the President did not appoint a "car czar" suggests that they are not looking to have the tough medicine administered by the administration – as Democrats, do they really want to slice wages and close plants? – but rather, they might prefer to have it done by the courts or some other independent force.
The housing crisis – The President is scheduled to announce a relief plan this Wednesday in hard-hit Phoenix. The first question will be whether it has enough details to judge what it will do – something sadly lacking in the bank bailout "plan" announced by Treasury Secretary Geithner a few days ago. (He got badly hurt in that episode but can still rehabilitate the policy and himself.) The other issue is how the administration will provide mortgage relief to homeowners – if it is through cash infusions, that will be expensive, but if it is through judicial interventions, that could send up interest rates. My bet: more money. One good thing about a housing solution: it adds to stimulus.
The banking crisis – This is the lollapalooza. The cost of a banking bailout will be at least three times as big as the stimulus package. In the estimate of many experts, much of the banking industry (not all) is insolvent – its liabilities now exceed the value of its marked-down assets. So far, the government is ducking the question of how to get those toxic assets off the books of the banks. There is a growing sense in Washington and on Wall Street that we are moving toward nationalization of some major banks. That's not what the administration wants, but experts believe that is where we are heading – and overseas, there is a growing chorus that the sooner the better. This is a very, very tough problem for the administration.
Federal deficits - Toward the end of February, the administration will announce its budget forecasts. My bet is that the predicted deficits will be eye-popping in size and longevity. That is partly because the Obama team will introduce more truth in budgeting, showing – unlike the Bush administration – what the real costs will be of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as other looming domestic initiatives. The White House clearly wants to move full steam ahead on health care reform and reform of energy policies this year – both costly. The hard political question in the country will soon be: how much more can we really afford? Is bailout fatigue going to set in, too?
Nobody knows the answers to all the questions just over the horizon. What insiders do recognize is that President Obama will need the political skills of an FDR and the tenacity of a Lincoln to help the country navigate through the storms that are coming.