The last couple weeks have served as a brilliant, if butt-ugly, reminder that governance should be judged not on the back and forth of day-to-day events, but on outcomes. When the history of President Obamaâ€™s first month in office is written, it will state that he moved swiftly and boldly (and perhaps “wisely”) to combat a calamitous economic crisis, pushing through stimulus legislation that emerged from Congress in pretty much the form and amount he requested, and in impressively short order. The sturm und drang over line items that came and went, honeymoons that supposedly ended early, and Bipartisanship: Impossible will be rendered mere footnotes to the end result.
That doesnâ€™t mean, however, that the minutiae of this past month should be disregarded completely. Indeed, they offer an assortment of clues to the manner in which Obamaâ€™s administration will play out over the long term. As long as he continues to get what he wants, Obama will use both carrots and sticks to engage the Republicans and maintain the bipartisan high ground; the minority party, meanwhile, will likely play nice and talk up what a great guy Obama is, while offering little to no actual support for his agenda.
Note, however, that last phrase: â€œhis agenda.â€ As I noted, historians will regard this stimulus as distinctly Obamaâ€™s package â€“ and once the bill reaches his desk for signature he will take full ownership of it. But since the day after Inauguration, this legislation has hardly felt like it belonged to Obama. He made a big show of acceding to various GOP tax-cut proposals during the weeks before he took the oath, but once in the White House he left the bill almost entirely in Congressional leadersâ€™ hands to shape, reshape and fight over. He seemed determined not to get his own hands dirty, not to demand specific items in specific amounts nor to reject specific Republican proposals out of hand.
He allowed the House to steer the bill too far to the left, then the Senate to over-correct to the right, before yesterdayâ€™s frenetic negotiations concluded with Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Ben Nelson, Arlen Spector and the Ladies from Maine all smiling. (Hereâ€™s another clue to the next two years: As long as those six people are smiling, Obamaâ€™s agenda will sail through the legislative branch.) The presidentâ€™s own armâ€™s-length embrace of this process wound up costing him only a few billion in education funding here, a few billion in aid to the states thereâ€¦
â€¦And about 25 percentage points of popular support for the legislation. Thatâ€™s the extent of the disconnect between Obamaâ€™s approval rating and that of the stimulus package itself. Obamaâ€™s decision to allow Pelosi and Reid to shape and guide the bill not only made opposition less painful for the Republicans â€“ it cost Obama considerable buy-in from a public that clearly wants him to seize his mandate and succeed with it, but is far less attached to the fortunes of the Democratic Congress.
Of course, Obama comes to the White House from the Senate, so his deference to the legislative branchâ€™s Constitutional authority to â€œmake the lawsâ€ is understandable. But compare Obamaâ€™s lackluster direction of the stimulus, which practically every economist agrees is necessary, to George W. Bushâ€™s ramrodding of his tax cuts through Congress in 2001 â€“ tax cuts that had only middling popular support to begin with. (Of course, back then the Democrats â€“ with the Senate split 50-50 â€“ could much more easily have filibustered and put the kibosh on the cuts altogether. Whether their decision to vote for the cuts in large numbers — 28 in the House, 12 in the Senate — and grant a new president his first big agenda item was honorably bipartisan, or lily-livered, depends upon your attitude toward bipartisanship.)
The end result in both instances will be the same â€“ Bush got his tax cuts, Obama will get his stimulus â€“ thus affirming my initial point here about wasting too much energy analyzing the process. Still, Bushâ€™s initial success in bending Congress to his will portended an administration that would use (and abuse) executive power to overwhelm razor-thin popular majorities (and eventually much less than that). Does Obamaâ€™s reticence tell us the opposite â€“ that he will prove unwilling or unable to flex his mandate-muscle and take charge on issues such as health care and entitlement reform?
Perhaps not. Perhaps, instead, he wanted to maintain plausible deniability in case the spending in the legislation eventually goes haywire. But Tuesdayâ€™s bank-rescue unveiling only exacerbated the problem. Instead of pitching the plan forcefully himself, Obama very consciously handed the ball off to Tim Geithner â€“ much as Bush had pulled his own ripcord back in October and left Hank Paulson to crash-land Bailout Mach One. Considering that the plan Geithner introduced is a Dogâ€™s Breakfast, half-baked and full of foul-smelling chunks of unpopular policy, Obama can be forgiven for wanting nothing to do with the rollout. But that doesnâ€™t make it any less Obamaâ€™s policy.
Paulson and now Geithner were allowed to take the lead â€“ and, in Paulsonâ€™s case, the fall â€“ because theyâ€™re the supposed experts who can reassure us dunderheads that they know what theyâ€™re doing. But the American people didnâ€™t elect Geithner. We elected his boss, and we did so in large part because we trusted him to tell us, as he promised during the campaign, â€œnot just what we want to hear, but what we need to know.â€ And thatâ€™s precisely what we need him to start doing, in detail, because a $3 trillion bailout will never fly just because the Secretary of the Treasury is such a smart guy (except when it comes to paying his taxes).
Ever since the election, Obamaâ€™s campaign poobahs have been trying to figure out what to do with the huge army of contributors and supporters they had recruited over the previous 24 months â€“ many of them Independents. Should they maintain the campaign spirit through Obama-centric messaging, or should they merely fold their e-mail list into the Democratic National Committeeâ€™s? Theyâ€™re still working that out â€“ and, clearly, Obama himself is still working out just how heâ€™s going to lead his party in Congress, and how heâ€™s going to dictate the nationâ€™s political agenda.
He needs to get it figured out, in a hurry. And he needs to remember that, at this moment in time, he â€“ and pretty much he alone â€“ is the guy around whom most Americans want and need to rally. The mandate to govern is his, to maximize or to squander.