Not since FDR has a new President achieved such far-reaching change as swiftly as Barack Obama. In office less than a month, he signs a $787 billion emergency stimulus bill into law. And remarkably, almost everything he was criticized for during the battle contributed to his victory.
He was assailed for letting the House Democrats write the bill instead of dispatching his own legislation to the Hill. He supposedly lost control to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then to Senate Leader Harry Reid. The truth is, the original House version was very close to what the President wanted. Was it really conceivable that the gathering Obama Administration wasn’t constantly conferring with congressional allies? It was beyond naïve to think otherwise—or to suggest that Obama was the passive recipient of a proposal he didn’t favor or largely shape.
Republicans found psychic satisfaction in ritually chanting “Pelosi and Reid” on every cable honkfest, but they were unwittingly playing the President’s game. His apparent margin of separation from the congressional process allowed him to look flexible—and gave him room to maneuver. He swiftly dispensed with the House provision on family planning, a decimal point in the bill, which can readily be included in later appropriations measures. Unlike the Clintons with their health care proposal, he wasn’t forced to defend every element of a precast approach—which made it easier to get pretty much all that he preferred.
Obama’s bipartisan appeal, criticized as an utter failure in the House, fell far short of the 80 Senate votes some in the Administration had once envisioned. But on several counts, the bipartisan Obama had it both ways. He could negotiate with a Republican gang of three to rewrite the bill in the Senate—and later, in the conference where the Senate and House versions had to be reconciled, his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel could deftly orchestrate the restoration of most of the President’s original priorities.
Along the way, Obama won credit from the public for trying to reach across the aisle; as a by-product, so did the vilified Congressional Democrats, whose poll ratings emerged half-again higher than the opposition’s. Then, when the Republican fiction writers seemed to be successfully infecting the public dialogue—their know-nothing caricatures of the bill were too good not to be reported—the President had the political space to take them on without seeming like an angry partisan. He convincingly ridiculed the tired right-wing clichés: A spending bill? Well, duh—that’s what stimulus is.
Obama left the Beltway to carry his case to the country in the places and with the people hardest hit by the recession. He embarked on a series of “roadside chats” that had the feel and empathy of FDR’s fireside chats. The Republicans could fulminate, but they couldn’t compete.
The Obama forces may not have planned it all exactly this way, and afterwards there were a few publicly uttered second thoughts from advisors. But it is hard to see how the White House could have played it better than this legislative broken-field running, where others often appeared to be carrying the ball until the crucial moment when Obama himself stepped forward to take it across the goal. And he wasn’t absent when he was unseen; his top operatives were a constant, quiet presence in the deal-making, bending it to the Administration’s direction. Politico, which had earlier catalogued the President’s “set-backs,” eventually settled on a new headline: “Obama proposals mostly intact in bill.”
This reality was largely missed until the end because the press coverage followed the old rules, with Beltway froth trumpeted as more significant than real-world events. Thus the assumption was that Obama was “hurt” when Republican Senator Judd Gregg abruptly withdrew as the next Commerce Secretary. It was a “big” story — but for the fact that the country doesn’t much care who sits at Herbert Hoover’s old desk in the Commerce Department. Instead, the episode left Obama looking open, reasonable—and yes, bipartisan. By contrast, Gregg’s explanation for his about-face was somewhere between goofy and dishonest.
The Republicans, too, played by the old rules and they lost. One CNN analyst opined that at least they had found “their voice”—primarily in the brittle tones of Rep. Eric Cantor, now hailed as a 21st Century Newt Gingrich. Cantor obviously hopes to repeat the 1993-94 “revolution” during which relentless Republican opposition to Clinton stalled progress and shattered Democratic congressional majorities in the mid-term election. I suspect Cantor will prove only that those who simplistically remember history are condemned to misread it. There wasn’t an economic crisis then; today there is, and it’s urgent. Yet the Republicans are coming across as bitter and obstructionist, determined to bring the President down no matter what the cost to the country. This is not the architecture of a successful electoral strategy; it is a spasm arising from ideological rigor mortis.
The Republicans may have found their voice; but it is, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, “like wind in dry grass.” These are “hollow men” who have nothing else to offer. In contrast, the President is cool, calm, strategic and focused on the critical issues and the long-term. He says correctly that he will be judged by “results.” It’s early, but the early achievement is breathtaking. Obama understands the uses of presidential power. If he brings that insight and the same instinct for what matters to healthcare, energy, and looming challenges like a half-lost war in Afghanistan, he can achieve change we can believe in—and live with for generations. In that case, the Reagan Era will be succeeded by the Obama Era.