Politics & Media
Feb 25, 2009, 04:54AM

A Rocky Start

The President's first month has had too much Pelosi, not enough Obama.

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Just a few months ago, Barack Obama and the Democrats were handed the presidency, the House and the Senate, thanks in large part to the missteps and ineptitude of the Republican Party. No one in the GOP was free from blame—certainly not President Bush and particularly not Congressional Republicans. As Obama easily defeated John McCain, most observers believed the Republican Party was headed for an extended stay in political purgatory. While I didn’t like it, I felt that the party was getting what it deserved. One would have thought the Democrats were ready to roll. After all, the electoral preference was clear for most of last year and the November results were never really in doubt. There were months of time for meticulous planning, and if the Obama campaign and its remarkable discipline were any indication, most expected a smooth start. It’s now been a month with the Democrats completely in charge, and it’s been somewhat rocky. If this continues, Obama and his party risk making the Republicans look capable by comparison.
Perhaps the most obvious mistakes the new administration has made have been the cabinet appointments. It’s unclear whether these mistakes resulted from a flawed vetting process, a misguided belief that the appointees’ political baggage would not sink their nomination, or a combination of the two. Nevertheless, the overall impression is one of sloppiness and disorganization. Preceding Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s troubles—due to unpaid taxes—were those of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. On the same morning that Tom Daschle’s cabinet withdrawal was announced, Nancy Killefer, Obama’s choice for the newly created position of Chief White House Performance Officer, announced that she was also stepping aside because of, yet again, tax problems. Rounding out the turbulent appointment process was the withdrawal of New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, whom Obama had appointed as his (second) choice for Commerce Secretary.

Less visible but more significant were the errors Obama and his administration made in the crafting of and justification for the massive economic stimulus package. Put simply, Obama ceded far too much control of the process to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. As a result, the bill, which Obama told Americans on numerous occasions was vital to avert a catastrophe, is laden with just the sort of projects and earmarks for which Congress—under Democratic and Republican leadership—has earned record low approval ratings, and against which Obama campaigned. A few examples of the “urgent” measures in the bill include $1 billion for the census, $300 million to buy hybrid cars for the federal government, $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, $30 million for salt marsh harvest mice in the San Francisco area and $8 billion for new high-speed railways, including one connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Not coincidentally, I suspect, the San Francisco area is represented by Pelosi, and Nevada by Reid. Pelosi and Reid had also promised the public 48 hours to review the stimulus bill before putting it to a vote—a reflection, no doubt, of Obama’s promise of unprecedented transparency. Yet when all was said and done, not only did the public not have 48 hours of review, members of Congress, those who were actually voting on the measure, had only a mere 10 hours to review a bill of nearly 1100 pages. Why the rush? While I’m sure Pelosi and other Democrats would point to the urgency of our economic situation as the reason, Obama didn’t seem particularly concerned about the need for immediate action, waiting several days to sign the bill into law. The contradiction between the words and actions of Obama, Pelosi and Reid was striking, and the entire process lacked the discipline for which Obama’s campaign was so often praised. Perhaps this was because Pelosi and Reid were running this show, an ominous sign.

As I watched President Obama speak in Denver ahead of signing the Stimulus Bill, I was struck by the fact that we may be witnessing the beginnings of a permanent campaign on the part of the man who just won the election. Never have I seen any president take a bill signing ceremony “on the road,” yet Obama did. Nor do I recall any president signing a bill in a campaign rally-like setting. Both had the atmosphere of a candidate in the midst of an election and neither seems worthy of the office Obama now holds. Additionally, I can’t think of one day since the inauguration that Obama hasn’t graced the television with his presence, and while the president is certainly the most visible public figure in America and should be seen and heard, there must be such a thing as an Obama-overload. This same campaign-like mentality also seemed to be in effect at the president’s prime time news conference last week. There were multiple times in the course of the hour-long event when Obama made a point of reminding viewers that many of the country’s current problems were ones he had merely “inherited.” While this may be true, it had the unattractive feel of someone trying to shirk the responsibilities of the presidency.

After all, this is the same guy who reportedly gloated, “I won” to justify dismissing concerns about the stimulus bill expressed by members of the House GOP Leadership. Obama can’t have it both ways. He did indeed win, and in choosing to seek the highest office in the land, he tacitly acknowledged that upon victory, he would assume full responsibility for everything. Constantly reminding Americans that he didn’t start the fire won’t effectively avert their nervousness. Blaming Bush was effective during the campaign, but in continuing to do so, Obama again comes across as a permanent candidate rather than a self-assured president. Are we in for four years of the Candidate-in-Chief and a White House in constant campaign mode? I hope not.

President Obama is intelligent and very politically astute. The same can be said of his advisors—many of whom helped run his remarkable campaign. The first month, however, was not a strong one for him or his party, and the heavy involvement of Pelosi, Reid and other Democratic notables played no small part in the bumpy start. The campaign is over now, however, and the real work has begun. The tools for successful campaigning are different from the tools for successful governing.

Will Obama and the Democrats be able to govern as effectively as they raise campaign funds and excite voters? While the first month hasn’t inspired confidence, there is time for improvement. Obama must limit the influence of the Democratic leadership in Congress, and he must approach the presidency with the seriousness and gravity the office and the moment require. If he can do this, he and his party will prosper, and more importantly, so will the country.

  • "...while the president is certainly the most visible public figure in America and should be seen and heard, there must be such a thing as an Obama-overload." Yeah, doesn't that asshole have some brush to clear or something.

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  • I have one point of contention with the general bitching about the projects included in the stimulus package: What is stimulus other than spending on projects that will have a short term stimulative effect? Aren't those projects even better if they have long term benefits as well? Seems to me that the construction of new power plants, purchase of new government vehicles and funding for high-speed rail meet those criteria to a T (in fact, I think that there should be more transit spending in this, and all future transportation bills). I don't know the specific provisions for the census but based on his desire to make sure that "every person get's counted," I'm guessing that a chunk of the money will go towards hiring additional employees for the census. I agree that "pet projects" like endangered species protection and supporting the arts my not be the best use of emergency stimulus funding, but again, all of these provisions should result in job creation--it's not like they throw money into a salt marsh so that the mice can eat it to survive. I'm not a fan of just throwing money away, but with the cash we're sinking into the banks, wouldn't you rather see some spending that does something, even if that something isn't at the top of your personal priority list?

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  • Step away from the talking points, Bragg. Step away slowly. http://theplumline.whorunsgov.com/stimulus-package/pelosi-staff-conservative-talking-point-about-30-million-for-mice-is-fabrication/

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  • Sorry, but I think you're the one stuck in campaign mode. The Republicans lost, thankfully, and a new leadership team is almost in place. You're entitled to your opinions obviously, but try to back them up with substance.

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  • This piece repeats the incorrect claim, apparently from some Republican talking points, that the stimulus bill's $8 billion for high-speed rail will support a line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, supposedly to benefit Harry Reid. The bill doesn't mention Las Vegas, and the rail projects to be funded with the $8 billion are to be based on the recommendations of the transportation secretary, who has yet to produce a list. I'm betting LA to Vegas won't be on the list, though we'll have to see. But the notion that this provision is pork for Harry Reid was pretty much demolished in a piece by Politico.( http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0209/18924.html) So why keep repeating it? It just seems like a cheesy way to denigrate an effort that most people would otherwise support.

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  • thanks for the comments (and thanks for reading). dtdowntown: i think you make some fair points, particularly the fact that to some extent, the validity or value of the projects within the stimulus are in the eye of the beholder. andrew: it appears i stand corrected on the san francisco mice, though i will defend myself from the charge that i was merely repeating talking points. it turns out that the misconception about the mice was reported in many media outlets, including "the hill", CNN, and others that i don't think are ever accused of being republican-leaning. further, while the story about the mice ended up being untrue, i don't think any reasonable analysis would conclude that pelosi doesn't enjoy her fair share of pork. nevertheless, i stand corrected on this and appreciate your bringing it to my attention. upstate fred, i think the jury is still out on just exactly if and how much the high speed rail money will benefit harry reid. here again, this is not repetition of talking points. in fact, my information came from "the washington post" (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/12/AR2009021203502_pf.html), again no GOP sympathizer. lastly, Alison777, when you say that "Republicans lost, thankfully, and a new leadership team is almost in place," i'm not sure what you're referring to. if you're referring to congress, well then republicans actually "lost" in 2006 when the democrats took control of the house and the senate. i'm also confused as to what you mean by "a new leadership team", as pelosi and reid have both been firmly ensconced in their respective leadership roles for several years, and show no signs of going anywhere soon. my mistake about the san francisco mice notwithstanding, where else do you feel i wasn't backing up my opinions with substance? again, i appreciate the comments -- pro and con -- and welcome a continuation of the dialogue.

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