Dan Balz's Take
As Clouds Gather at Home, Obama Administration Buckles Down
By Dan Balz
President Obama has spent the past two days in an earthquake zone in Italy but he must wonder if somehow the earth is moving back home in Washington.
From the moment of his election last November, the story line has been fixed and rigid: Obama astride the political world; Republicans in shambles. The president has enjoyed strong approval ratings and generally strong, if somewhat lower, confidence in his policies. He has commanded the stage as few presidents before him, a virtual embodiment of the 24/7 media environment.
Republicans, in contrast, have been portrayed as the basket case of politics -- leaderless and without vision. Their decimated congressional wing has been described as the "party of no." Elsewhere they have been defined by scandal (Mark Sanford's Argentine affair) and surprise behavior (Sarah Palin's Alaska resignation). They are the shrunken party.
Suddenly there are new tremors: hints of slackening faith in Obama's leadership and signals of concern among the president's followers about some of his policies. Gallup's daily tracking has recorded a downdraft in the president's approval from 63 percent at the end of last month to 56 percent on Wednesday. Questions about the administration's stimulus package have grown louder. Republicans sound emboldened, if still beset by a host of problems.
Passage of health care reform legislation is far from certain, with the climate still far better than it was during the Clinton administration but enough divisions and pending decisions about the shape of legislation to keep its fate still in the balance. On the issues of energy and climate change, Obama is buffeted at home and abroad in his effort to broker coalitions to act.
The White House is responding in two ways. The first is with a sense of resignation over the predictability of the is-the-sky-falling chatter that has begun to pop up. Obama has heard this before. As a candidate he faced it repeatedly when his poll numbers seemed to lag or his message seemed flat or his campaign seemed small and back on its heels.
His response in those situations was to hew to the course he had set. He had a sense of self-confidence that his own abilities and the strategy his team had adopted would see them through those periods of discontent. As a candidate, he was proven right. Will the same be the case today?
The other response by the administration this week is a show of campaign-style aggressiveness. In past times of uncertainty, Obama's advice was not just to stay the course with strategy. It also included telling his team in forceful terms to step up and execute, to sharpen their performance. That has begun to happen in the past few days, as administration officials have concluded they must do a better job of selling their economic policies.
Vice President Biden not only hustled out to Ohio Thursday to respond to questions about whether the stimulus was working, but also showed that White House officials are ready to take the fight to their critics. "What would they do?" he exclaimed of the Republican naysayers, according to a report from Cincinnati by the Post's Peter Slevin. Such rhetorical engagement won't produce jobs any faster, but suggests the administration realizes they must do more to push back against their opponents in order to hold the public.
The stimulus package, senior White House officials say, is built for the long haul. It was constructed with a consciousness that a quick fix might result in temporary relief at the risk of a prolonged period of no-or-slow growth, as Japan experienced in the 1990s. This package, these officials say, is meant to continue injecting stimulus into the economy through next year, not to pour everything into the first months of its existence.
The other reality, they argue, is that this stimulus package was designed to offset some of the force of the economic contraction, not provide a full substitute in terms of lost GDP. "It was never intended to fill the magnitude of the gaps we were looking at even then or are looking at now," a White House official told me.
So the administration now must manage both an economic problem and a public relations problem. They remain resistant, or at least cautious about, a second stimulus package, though some of their Democratic allies are convinced one will be needed. The president has led the response by insisting that the package he pushed last winter was the right one.
But there has been a shift in the public relations side of the ledger. The selling of the package last winter was to create a sense of urgency to force Congress to act quickly. The selling today is to urge patience as the federal dollars begin to course through the economy and help begin the healing process.
Some Republicans are convinced there has been a significant turn in how the public assesses the president -- that rhetorical skill cannot compensate for lack of results. If results don't come soon, they argue, Obama will suffer. Certainly that's correct in the long run, but how much time and goodwill does Obama still have?
Administration officials believe the effects of the stimulus package will look more favorable this fall than they may today, although they expect unemployment to continue rising. That presents a dilemma even if the stimulus package is doing what they anticipated, but it gives them hope.
There are so many things in flux right now that broad conclusions about the political impact on Obama's political standing are risky. Certainly the indicators show questions rising about Obama's leadership, though he continues to enjoy majority support nationally on most measures.
But he faces a summer of big challenges and hard slogging and more judgment days ahead. Having won the White House on hope, he can't afford to see that slip away.
Posted at 1:30 PM ET on Jul 9, 2009
Dan Balz's Take
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