Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Obama Watching 2/08/09 to Now

Let me say that I think Obama watching will be much more interesting than watching another politician in my lifetime (although there were perverse pleasures in wondering what Nixon would do next in his retirement). I have some premises that the following articles either confirm or confirm that the press is clueless.

What are those premises? First, that this fellow may just be the smartest fellow to be President since Lincoln (Not a lot of competition there - Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton). Second, he does not walk on water but he can play basketball and basketball is a game of mobility even its pauses. Third, that he has a long range plan. Fourth, he has the sheer willfulness to carry out that plan that we have not seen since Lincoln. Fifth, we read into him what we want to read into him but so far he seems blissfully lacking in the messianic complex of Lincoln or Wilson (or even that aw-shucks sort of messianic complex of Reagan). Sixth, underestimate him at your own peril (see Hilary and McCain for an explanation of that).

So far, I think Frank Rich and Bob Herbert have got the best line on our President.

From Herbert's The Chess Master:
"There is always a tendency to underestimate Barack Obama. We are inclined in the news media to hyperventilate over every political or policy setback, no matter how silly or insignificant, while Mr. Obama has shown again and again that he takes a longer view.

There was no way, for example, that the Daschle flap was going to derail the forward march of a man who had survived the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fiasco. It’s early, but there are signs that Mr. Obama may be the kind of president who is incomprehensible to the cynics among us — one who is responsible and mature, who is concerned not just with the short-term political realities but also the long-term policy implications."

***

The simple truth is that most Republican politicians would like Mr. Obama to fail because that is their ticket to a quick return to power. I think the president is a more formidable opponent than they realize.

Mr. Obama is like a championship chess player, always several moves ahead of friend and foe alike. He’s smart, deft, elegant and subtle. While Lindsey Graham was behaving like a 6-year-old on the Senate floor and Pete Sessions was studying passages in his Taliban handbook, Mr. Obama and his aides were assessing what’s achievable in terms of stimulus legislation and how best to get there.

I’d personally like to see a more robust stimulus package, with increased infrastructure spending and fewer tax cuts. But the reality is that Mr. Obama needs at least a handful of Republican votes in the Senate to get anything at all done, and he can’t afford to lose this first crucial legislative fight of his presidency.

Ruth Marcus notes what Obama did wrong but compares him with Clinton and Bush in their first months with her Obama Has Bad Week, But Good Start: "
Sure, President Obama had a lousy week. A week is not a presidency. He blundered with the selection, and withdrawal, of Tom Daschle to spearhead his health-care reform effort. Indeed, the self-inflicted Daschle damage is twofold: In the short term, and along with other problematic nominees, to Obama's claim to signal change from Washington business as usual; in the longer term, to steering health reform through Congress."

***

And certainly, there were problems with the rollout of his stimulus package. The administration ceded too much control over the contents to House Democrats, although it was nowhere near as hands-off as it has been portrayed. It was entirely foreseeable that Republicans would cherry-pick individual elements for ridicule; the administration excised some of them but failed to do enough to anticipate the outsized problems that remaining items would cause. The president, until he rebooted this week with travel and a prime-time news conference, lost control of the message to Republicans, who were only too happy to seize it.

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But it is difficult to assemble a measure of this magnitude -- this audacity, even -- once you've settled into office. It's nearly impossible to do it from the outside or on the way in the door, without functioning e-mail or phones. Expecting the Obama team to operate perfectly under these conditions is like expecting a first-year med student to perform surgery -- before the stethoscopes have been handed out.

***

Remember, at this point in Bill Clinton's presidency, he was still more than two months away from losing his effort to pass a stimulus measure. Its price tag? $16 billion.

At this point in George W. Bush's presidency, he was being lauded for his bipartisan outreach. Although "it is too early to say whether the charm will be successful . . . ," The Post's editorial page observed, "the tone of President Bush's first fortnight deserves a warm welcome."

Both snapshots offer a set of useful reminders. First, the shape of a presidency cannot be discerned from its first few weeks. Clinton's was more successful, if not that much more disciplined, than its wobbly beginning would suggest; Bush's was more disastrous and divisive than could have been imagined from that warm and fuzzy start. Second, every president discovers anew that achieving results in Washington is a lot harder than promising them on the campaign trail. Only if you expected to wake up the day after the inauguration and see unicorns prancing across the Mall should you be particularly surprised at the current state of play.

***

So if you're feeling jittery about Obama's start, ask yourself this: Is there another president in recent memory who would have done better?

Maybe memory caused the Republican/conservative commentators to see things a bit differently.

Kathleen Parker wrote the following in her Obama's Lack of Maturity Shows:

What's missing from Obama's performance isn't the intelligence that voters acknowledged in electing him. It's the experience they tried to pretend didn't really matter. Experienced politicians, after all, got us into this mess.

Absent is maturity -- that grown-up quality of leadership that is palpable when the real deal enters a room. There's a reason why elders are respected. They have something the rest of us don't have -- yet -- because we haven't lived long enough. We haven't made the really tough decisions, the ones that are often unpopular."

***

Or had he looked across the table into the eyes of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and realized that he was not among friends? Obama's lack of authority over the stimulus package has underscored the value of political experience and toughness -- and given weakened Republicans the leverage they needed to launch an aggressive attack.

***

But Obama's eager confession -- "I screwed up" -- hit a hollow note. Doubtless, he was trying to demonstrate "change" by distinguishing himself from Bush, who could never quite put a finger on his mistakes. Rather than seeming Trumanesque in stopping the buck at his desk, Obama seemed more like an abused spouse who starts her day saying, "I'm sorry. It's all my fault."

He appeared weak.

Yeah, right. That he did not bluster like Bush or Cheney or throw tantrums like McCain, he appeared weak. He said he screwed up and then got onto the work of being President. Unlike W., he made no whiny noises about being President is hard work.

Michael Gerson's Obama's Pragmatism Lacks Vision indicates to me that he needs to get out of Washington.

But that creed has now been tested in two areas. First, the new president deferred almost entirely to the Democratic congressional leadership on the initial shape of the stimulus package -- which, in turn, was shaped by pent-up Democratic spending appetites instead of by an explainable economic theory. Senate modifications made the legislation marginally more responsible. But Obama's pragmatism, in this case, was a void of creativity, filled by the most aggressively ideological branch of government. And this managed to revive Republican ideological objections to federal overreach. In the new age of pragmatism, all the ideologues seem to be encouraged.

Except for two things, one political and the other constitutional. The Republicans have now shown themselves to be the party of NO. That is the political effect of letting Congress write legislation. Which leads to the constitutional issue: Congress passes the laws and not the Executive.

Back to Gerson, for what I find a most incredible statement:

The second test of Obama's pragmatism has been education. During his campaign for president, Obama's post-partisan appeal was most credible -- to me and to others -- on education reform. He supported test-based accountability and merit pay for teachers -- significant departures from the education union agenda.

But education spending in the stimulus -- about $140 billion in the House and $80 billion in the Senate -- has little or no emphasis on teacher quality in schools with high ratios of minorities, little or no emphasis on strengthening charter schools, little or no emphasis on improved assessment, little or no emphasis on teaching the basics of reading. With shrinking state and local education budgets, an increase in federal spending may be justified. But the administration's approach abandons the most basic principle of school improvement: reform, and then resources.

Er, this was a stimulus plan and not an education reform bill. Economy gets stimulated by building. I think the technical term for this sort of argument is non sequitur. I think it also runs counter to the Republican argument that the bill had too much non-stimulating provisions.

So far Florida Republicans have not seen supporting the stimulus plan a bad thing: Poll: Crist Pays No Price Among GOP Voters For Backing Stimulus.

Paul Krugman wrote the following in his On the Edge:
"So what should Mr. Obama do? Count me among those who think that the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh. What matters now, however, is what he does next.

It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk. The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge."

Who looks better now? The President or the do-nothing Republicans? Who out here in the real world buys the Republican line that tax cuts are what we need? Polls show that even Congress' approval ratings have gone up. Support for the stimulus plan is increasing, too: Public Opinion Snapshot: Support for Economic Stimulus Package Increases. Consider this from The New York Observor's The Obstructionists Lost:

Not only did the president win the debate over his bill, but he also rebutted the Republican argument over tax cuts versus spending, according to Gallup’s Feb. 9 poll. By 50 percent to 42 percent, most Americans believe that government spending will do more to spur economic growth than tax cuts—a stunning repudiation of conservative ideology. Although Republicans tend to prefer tax cuts by wide margins, Democrats remain convinced that spending works better and, ominously for the right, so do independents by a margin of 50 percent to 36 percent.

The Republicans slapped themselves on the back for denying the president a single vote in the House of Representatives, but the basic fact is that they could not come close to sustaining a filibuster against this bill. Underlying that reality is the emptiness of their fiscal rhetoric and the paucity of their ideas. Out in big states such as Florida, California and Connecticut, their own G.O.P. governors have spoken out in favor of the stimulus because the party has no program beyond tax cuts for the wealthy.


Again, Paul Krugman signals his disappointment from the left with his Failure to Rise:

"One might have expected Republicans to act at least slightly chastened in these early days of the Obama administration, given both their drubbing in the last two elections and the economic debacle of the past eight years.

But it’s now clear that the party’s commitment to deep voodoo — enforced, in part, by pressure groups that stand ready to run primary challengers against heretics — is as strong as ever. In both the House and the Senate, the vast majority of Republicans rallied behind the idea that the appropriate response to the abject failure of the Bush administration’s tax cuts is more Bush-style tax cuts."

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Now, the chances that the fiscal stimulus will prove adequate would be higher if it were accompanied by an effective financial rescue, one that would unfreeze the credit markets and get money moving again. But the long-awaited announcement of the Obama administration’s plans on that front, which also came this week, landed with a dull thud.

On technical grounds Krugman may be correct but he is certainly dour about Obama's political chances.

Now let us hear from Frank Rich They Sure Showed That Obama:

"AM I crazy, or wasn’t the Obama presidency pronounced dead just days ago? Obama had “all but lost control of the agenda in Washington,” declared Newsweek on Feb. 4 as it wondered whether he might even get a stimulus package through Congress. “Obama Losing Stimulus Message War” was the headline at Politico a day later. At the mostly liberal MSNBC, the morning host, Joe Scarborough, started preparing the final rites. Obama couldn’t possibly eke out a victory because the stimulus package was “a steaming pile of garbage"

***

In any event, the final score was unambiguous. The stimulus package arrived with the price tag and on roughly the schedule Obama had set for it. The president’s job approval percentage now ranges from the mid 60s (Gallup, Pew) to mid 70s (CNN) — not bad for a guy who won the presidency with 52.9 percent of the vote. While 48 percent of Americans told CBS, Gallup and Pew that they approve of Congressional Democrats, only 31 (Gallup), 32 (CBS) and 34 (Pew) percent could say the same of their G.O.P. counterparts.

At least some media hands are chagrined. After the stimulus prevailed, Scarborough speculated on MSNBC that “perhaps we’ve overanalyzed it, we don’t know what we’re talking about.” But the Republicans are busy high-fiving themselves and celebrating “victory.” Even in defeat, they are still echoing the 24/7 cable mantra about the stimulus’s unpopularity. This self-congratulatory mood is summed up by a Wall Street Journal columnist who wrote that “the House Republicans’ zero votes for the Obama presidency’s stimulus ‘package’ is looking like the luckiest thing to happen to the G.O.P.’s political fortunes since Ronald Reagan switched parties.” There hasn’t been this much delusional giddiness in these ranks since Monica Lewinsky promised a surefire Republican sweep in the 1998 midterms.

**

But, as he said in Fort Myers last week, he will ultimately be judged by his results. If the economy isn’t turned around, he told the crowd, then “you’ll have a new president.” The stimulus bill is only a first step on that arduous path. The biggest mistake he can make now is to be too timid. This country wants a New Deal, including on energy and health care, not a New Deal lite. Far from depleting Obama’s clout, the stimulus battle instead reaffirmed that he has the political capital to pursue the agenda of change he campaigned on.

I want to leave with this from Eugene Robinson's Obama as President of Everything:

All Barack Obama wanted was to be president. He may have to become an auto executive, a banker, a mortgage broker and who knows what else before this crisis is done.

When did we last require this much from a President? I say not since FDR and maybe not even then.

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