President (Elect) Obama Takes the Lead

There may only be one president at a time, as Barack Obama said three days after winning the Nov. 4 presidential election. But for an outsider looking in, it might be hard to tell.

For one thing, there's his choice of Treasury secretary: By saying he would nominate Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, he ensured that, for all practical purposes, his new administration won't just be on the sidelines as decisions get made about the government's response to the financial crisis.

The New York Fed, after all, is the central bank's strongest link to the financial industry, and Geithner has been intimately involved with nearly every step of the financial bailout so far. To the extent that continues, the Obama administration-in-waiting essentially has a seat at the table.

Paulson said as much in Tuesday's press conference about the new joint Fed-Treasury lending facility, announced the same morning: "We worked on this together, as we have every one of these [interventions]," Paulson said.

Obama is clearly acutely aware of his role as president-in-waiting, and perhaps a little more. At his Monday press conference, he declared that his new economic team's "work starts today, because, the truth is, we don't have a minute to waste." On Tuesday, he backed down ever so slightly, reiterating that, yes, George W. Bush is still president. But, he continued, "we don't intend to stumble into the next administration. ... We're going to hit the ground running."

By that he meant, at least in part, with a big economic stimulus package. He wouldn't go into just how big it should be -- speculation has hovered around $500 billion to $700 billion of late -- but he was clear that he wanted lawmakers in Congress to get started crafting it. Now, not in January.

And this is where Democrats in Congress come close to pretending that Obama already is president. Over the weekend, Sen. Charles Schumer declared that lawmakers would hammer out a stimulus bill with Obama even before he's president, and have it on his desk as soon as he takes the oath of office: "I think Congress will work with the president elect starting now and will have a major stimulus package on his desk by Inauguration Day," Bloomberg quoted him as saying on ABC's "This Week". (Congress, of course, revs up Jan. 3, more than two weeks before Obama takes office.)

The specter of a Bush veto has swayed plenty of Democratic legislation even since they took control of Congress two years ago; no more. And with close to 60 seats in the Senate, it won't take much to avoid a GOP filibuster.

In short, for a man who doesn't yet hold office, Obama nonetheless has substantial sway. And if you take him at his word, he's willing to use it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.