WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama was elected, in part, as the antidote to ambition. Unlike John F. Kennedy, who campaigned against the golf-playing complacency of the Eisenhower era, Obama appealed to a nation weary of large national exertions -- a nation longing for a normalcy beyond the wars, hurricanes, floods and assorted plagues of the Bush years.
Yet headed toward the inauguration, the scale of Obama's ambition is becoming evident.
I am not referring to his stimulus plan, which tends toward the limited and conventional. Obama's tax cuts are designed to improve household cash flow. But it is the iron rule of stimulus packages that temporary tax cuts have temporary results -- like coffee instead of a meal for a hungry man.
Obama's proposed infrastructure spending has the Lincolnian appeal of fostering "internal improvements" -- raising the prospect that public spending might have some lasting public benefit. But there is a fine line between infrastructure and pork -- the line between building a bridge, which might promote economic growth, and painting a bridge, which merely provides a few jobs for a few weeks. And Congress is not particularly known for its navigation of fine lines.
The Obama economic plan is expensive but hardly revolutionary -- much less "socialist." In reality, American presidents have few levers long enough to shift a continental economy. During an economic winter, they shovel the snow -- and then take credit for the spring.
But there are two other areas where Obama's campaign pledges are proving ambitious.
First, Obama proposes to require all but the smallest businesses to provide health coverage to employees -- or pay a tax. He would also create a government-run insurance plan similar to Medicare that would compete with private companies to cover the uninsured. The problem is this: Because government can impose price controls, it can make the public option cheaper. Companies, tired of dealing with complicated health care burdens, would have an incentive to drop employees from coverage, and uncovered individuals would have an incentive to join the public system -- achieving universal nationalization of health care by small steps.
In reacting to this approach, Republicans face a difficult, defining moment. This is not 1994, when opponents, offering no alternatives, killed the Clinton health reform. Many businesses are sincerely discontented with the current employer-based system.