Ethics & Public Policy Center

Where Are We Heading?

Published in Commentary Web Exclusive on February 11, 2009



Barack Obama has been President for just over three weeks. But even this early into the Age of Obama, we can, I think, make a valuable assessment on where things stand.

On the plus side for Obama, by later this month he will have achieved, in almost record time, a huge legislative victory: passage of a trillion dollar (more or less) economic package. His approval rating remains high. And he showed at his press conference on Monday that he is an extremely skilled communicator, one of the best we have ever seen. He is unquestionably the best spokesman Democrats have, and he comes across as reasonable, intelligent, and likeable (if long-winded and sometimes lecturing). But none of that is new; those talents, after all, were on full display during the campaign.

What is surprising is how many mishaps have taken place and how many damaging developments have accrued. One of the key pillars of Obama's campaign and his popularity was his commitment to bipartisanship. But that promise, like Jeremiah Wright, Tom Daschle, and others, has been tossed under the Obama bus. President Obama essentially admitted as much at his press conference earlier this week, when he said that bipartisanship would have to take a back-seat to passage of the economic legislation he wanted.

It's not simply that Obama gained no Republican votes in the House for his plan, and got only three in the Senate. It is that Obama himself never made a serious play at bipartisan cooperation. What he did was allow Nancy Pelosi and liberal House Democrats to write the legislation. Republicans were shut out. And once the legislation emerged, Republicans were asked to come on board. They politely but emphatically declined. It turns out spending a few hours with the GOP caucus and hosting a Super Bowl party does not constitute authentic bipartisanship.

The next pillar to crumble was the promise of “new politics.” We saw it with the announcement of new ethics rules barring lobbyists from working in the Obama Administration on issues that fell under their lobbying bailiwick – followed by waivers for lobbyists working on issues that fell under their lobbying bailiwick. In defense, press secretary Robert Gibbs defended the standard, as if violating the standard was of secondary importance. President Obama has also taken to lacerating Republicans for their opposition to his so-called stimulus plan, arguing that their opposition isn't based on different convictions but on narrow partisanship. A friend of mine who voted for Obama told me he was taken aback by the “gratuitous” nature of Obama's attacks. This was hardly the “turn-the-page-on-the-politics-of-the-past” that we had been told to expect.

More importantly, we have seen a surprising sloppiness from Team Obama. It has manifest itself through a sub-standard vetting process (which led to Bill Richardson withdrawing his nomination for Secretary of Commerce); to tone-deafness in believing the tax problems of Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle, both of which are significant and troubling, would be glossed over; to the announcement that they would close Guantanamo Bay without having any idea what they would do with the detainees (a future commission will decide this, we are told); to Secretary Geithner's disastrous unveiling of a plan to fix the nation's ailing financial markets. Even Democrats were unnerved by the scant details of Geithner's plan. “What they did is over-promise and under-deliver,” Thomas Barrack, chief executive of Colony Capital, a private investment firm in Los Angeles, told the Washington Post. “They said there was going to be a plan, so everybody expected a plan. And there was nothing.”

Minutes after the Geithner “plan” was announced, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged. It finished the day down 381.99 points, or 4.6 percent. The Standard and Poor's 500-stock index fell 4.9 percent. And Obama's response is that Wall Street was expecting an easy solution. No, actually what Wall Street was expecting was a competent plan. It got neither.

What is also surprising is the degree to which Obama has ceded authority to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. One gets the sense that they are more in control than he is. And why Obama would grant the authority to write his economic recovery plan to Pelosi and House Democrats, who after all comprise the most liberal Congress in memory, is hard to fathom. The obvious explanation is Obama and his Administration were not ready to do it. In any event, he got exactly what you would expect: a massive spending bill, laden with wasteful and unnecessary programs which have almost nothing to do with stimulating the economy. In hitching his wagon to Pelosi and Reid, Obama has succeeded in reenergizing the GOP beyond what anyone could have anticipated.

Right now President Obama and his team look at times amateurish and somewhat overmatched by events.

To be fair, it is still extremely early. President Obama, a man of formidable skills, can regain his footing easily enough. And what will matter in the end is how events unfold, rather than the process. That is almost always the case. If the economy is surging by 2010, Obama and his party will reap the benefits. At the same time, a lot that is significant has already happened. The most attractive qualities about Obama have been shown to be, at this point at least, a mirage. Most importantly, Obama's fate is now tied to an economic package that was shaped more by political considerations (a 40-year Democratic wish list) than economic needs. This legislation is, in the eyes of many, a monstrosity. And very soon now Barack Obama will have ownership of it, and all the fiscal and economic consequences that flow from it.

One can't help think that less than a month into their administration, Obamacons would have hopes for something more, and something better.

It turns out governing is indeed harder than campaigning, and making promises is easier than fulfilling them.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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