A deep narrative is taking root in the political class, and it goes something like this: Obama is biting off way more than he can chew, "overloading" the system and dealing with all sorts of "side issues," when he should be focusing solely on the broken economy. He is said to be asking Congress to do too much.
And that's the beauty of this critique. It's far easier to talk about an overloaded system than to tell those without health insurance that they will have to wait a few more years, or to be honest in saying that balancing the budget long-term will require raising taxes. It's much easier to use the economic crisis as an excuse for inaction than to defend the status quo.
Obama's biggest problem on the AIG bonuses is that his administration spoke with multiple voices. Initially, top officials wanted to defend the decision to pay them as a necessary evil. Then Obama realized that the episode threatened his entire bank rescue plan, so he took on the role of denouncer in chief.
And then came the bad news on rising deficits. The CBO report was not unexpected: Everyone knew that a sinking economy would batter government revenue. The scary new numbers provided the evaders with more reasons to build roadblocks to Obama's program.
Obama's top budget officials seem confident that they can deal with this immediate difficulty. His larger challenge is to take on the politics of evasion promoted by those who would indefinitely delay health-care reform, energy conservation and the expansion of educational opportunities. Already, his lieutenants are signaling how he will cast the choice: between "taking on the country's long-term challenges" or just "lowering our sights and muddling through," as one senior aide put it.
Whatever strategy the president pursues, the burden in the argument should be on those who insist that the government is incapable of, say, repairing the banking system and fixing health care at the same time.
As we all know, Obama promised change we can believe in. The operative verb in that slogan was "believe." His task is to restore faith that what he had in mind is still possible.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.