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Obama, Chastened

John Heilemann has a characteristically shrewd essay up at New York magazine, explaining how Obama’s losses thus far are mostly his own fault: The Republican Mau-Mauing of the stimulus package has reinforced a persistent critique from Obama’s left: that his … Read More

By / February 6, 2009

John Heilemann has a characteristically shrewd essay up at New York magazine, explaining how Obama’s losses thus far are mostly his own fault:

The Republican Mau-Mauing of the stimulus package has reinforced a persistent critique from Obama’s left: that his strategy of focusing on bi-partisanship was naïve or simply nuts—because Republicans would inevitably do … well, exactly what they’ve done. But it strikes me that Obama’s quest for cross-party comity and collaboration isn’t what’s been most damaging. The problem has been the institutional deference that he and his team have shown to the congressional leadership, giving them guiding principles but also wide latitude to cobble together the bill. That meant ceding enormous power to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and their posses, a move that even an untrained eye could have seen had three words written all over it: recipe for disaster.

Neither Obama nor (especially) Emanuel is remotely so myopic as to have missed that warning. So what were they doing? Partly behaving in that weirdly passive-aggressive way that is sometimes Obama’s wont—his propensity to try to float above the fray, keeping his fingernails clean. But another part was rooted in a distinctly Rahmian calculation: Let Pelosi and her peeps do their worst, leak word that Obama was displeased with the outré stuff that crept into the legislation, then rely on the Senate to pare back the effluvia, in the process creating a bill that would not only secure the requisite 60 votes (to avoid a filibuster) in the upper chamber but emerge as moderate enough to bring some of the saner House Republicans onboard in the end.

"I screwed up" perfectly nails Obama’s appointment of three tax defaulters to sensitive positions in an administration said to prize accountability and transparency. Falling on his sword immediately was the right thing to do, even if it was politically savvy (since when is being honest and self-promoting at the same time a vice?) But it was also a relatively negligible score for him: hiring snafus are far less important than what employees do once they get started. Heilemann compares the Geithner-Daschle-Killefer implosion to Clinton’s botched appointment of would-be attorney general Zoë Baird, a name hardly anyone remembers now, certainly not hard-to-displease Obamans for whom the Clinton years seem a distant dream. However, Janet Reno’s notoriety — from Waco to extraordinary rendition — lives on.

The stimulus snafu is more revealing because, while we are comparing 44 to 42, it hints at Obama’s first "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Moment," a miscalculation derived from his tendency to try and have things both ways. He knows the economy is the issue that will challenge his re-election bid in 2012 (he’ll begin campaigning, amazingly, in fewer than 18 months), so he seeks to be able to claim credit for all successes on this front, but responsibility for none of the failures. "I screwed up" will likely not be the refrain if the jobless rate continues to plunge.

Heilemann’s point about a machiavellian tactic to play the Senate against the House might have been better served had Obama not taken the opportunity, when grilled by Brian Williams and other television interviewers, to explain that the "effluvia" in the Dem-drafted stimulus represented less than 1% of the bill’s total sum. (One could likewise claim that the self-arrogated bonuses on Wall Street that so infuriated the president are mere chicken scratches of red ink. Waste is waste is waste should be the point Obama hammers home, especially as he forces a much-resented pay cut on White House employees.) Also, the bill actually grew in pelf in the Senate, from $819 billion to $937 billion. So much for Rahmbo’s budgetary war of attrition.

Obama is nothing if not self-assured. It’s time he started acting like it. Ceding so much authority to a Congress less popular than the last president counts as a bigger blunder — more naive, too — than neglecting to dial up the IRS to make sure everyone on his proposed team was on the level.

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