What’s on Obama’s Full Plate?

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Well before Barack Obama took the reins of the presidency, it became clear that the worldwide economic meltdown would complicate his ambitious agenda. But more complicated doesn’t necessarily mean more difficult to accomplish; on the contrary, as commentators have stressed again and again, it’s during dire times that America’s most beloved presidents have made their marks (see: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt). In other words, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So how will Obama, who enters office at a historically high level of popularity, choose to get going? After the jump, a primer on five key issues on which he’s already beginning to flex his political muscle. Of course, there’s plenty more for Obama to think about (Iran, Pakistan, and overhauling health insurance come to mind), but these are some of the foremost challenges he now addresses.

1. It’s the economy, stupid. Much of Obama’s planned agenda will have to take a backseat to the economy, which will take top priority in the coming months. Two years ago, the idea of an $825 billion stimulus package and the semi-nationalization of the banking system would have seemed like a sick joke about a dystopian future; now, many wonder whether such measures are extreme enough. Obama’s team of economic advisers, which includes Secretary Timothy Geithner and former secretary Lawrence Summers, believes that the sprawling American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — providing funding for everything from electrical-grid infrastructure to the National Endowment for the Arts — is absolutely necessary to jumpstart the economy. But with such a massive amount of money involved, Republican opponents of the bill — most notably House Minority Leader John Boehner — are warning of wasteful spending, while others contend that the money won’t be spent quickly enough to make a significant impact.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is switching the focus of TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program), which has already lent hundreds of million dollars in an effort to stem the tide of the subprime mortgage crisis. The initial focus of TARP, advocated by Bush’s treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, was on buying up equity and bad assets from banks; the Obama team is more interested in giving credit directly to consumers.

Obama also announced tougher regulations for the banking industry as a whole — an unsurprising move, given that lax oversight is widely seen to have led to the industry’s tumble last year. And as for the tax cuts for the wealthy that Obama vigorously campaigned against, rather than strike them down immediately, his current plan is to let them quietly expire in 2010.

2. It’s a little easier being green. Someone’s been reading his Thomas Friedman. Obama is trying to kill two birds with one stone by pairing energy initiatives with his plan for creating jobs. Included in the stimulus bill are hundreds of millions of dollars for roads and bridges, as well as cost-cutting measures to make federal buildings more energy-efficient. Perhaps even more important than those measures, though, is Obama’s decision to let 14 states, including California, go ahead with measures to develop more stringent fuel standards for automobiles than the rest of the country — a move, opposed by the Bush administration, that will likely result in a significant drop in emissions. At a Monday press conference, Obama stressed that environmental policy will be a serious priority for his administration, and that the Environmental Protection Agency would be “guided by facts” in its mission — a not-so-subtle dig at the Bush team’s aversion to climate science.

3. Perpetually Troubled Afghanistan. The words “Afghanistan” and “quagmire” go together like “Sweden” and, er, “opposite of quagmire.” The untamed nation has famously gotten the best of past empires; Obama is hoping to reverse that historical trend while he still can. During the peak years of the Iraq War, the Taliban was rebuilding, the poppy trade was booming once again, and President Hamid Karzai lost his political luster. All the while, US troops tried to control the situation on the ground with a dearth of resources. As Obama consults with generals about the viability of his plan to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months, he aims to make good on his campaign vows to put increasing focus on Afghanistan, with at least an additional 7,000 troops, and possibly many more. Of particular concern is the Eastern tribal area near the Pakistan border, where Taliban and al-Qaeda figures have enjoyed a renaissance.

4. Israel and the Palestinians: should be a breeze. The first telephone call Obama made after his inauguration was to Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah, the Palestinian group that controls the West Bank. The gesture alone is a sign that Obama should be considerably more active than George W. Bush in attempting to broker a solution — any solution — between Israelis and Palestinians. The oft-thankless task of mediating between the two sides has confounded presidential predecessors, and, after the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the current impasse between the two seems as intractable as ever. Obama will dispatch special envoy George Mitchell to the region; the former senator recently investigated steroid usage in that other hotbed of internecine rivalry: Major League Baseball.

5. Torture is a bad word again. A day after his inauguration, Obama signed an executive order to close the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison facility within a year. He also ordered a review of trials for the prison’s inmates, banned the use of “harsh interrogation tactics” by the CIA, and ordered the closure of secret US prisons overseas. Where will the Guantánamo prisoners go now? That’s just one of the many questions wrapped up in Obama’s decisions.