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How to Repair the Damage

Stephen Stromberg

How much will the Daschle episode sting? Barack Obama began his transition – before winning the presidency, even – as a kind of un-Clinton, ready with short-lists of candidates for the top jobs and a team to perform the most thorough vetting a presidential transition has ever done. That mystique is gone. During Clinton's transition, too, the new president's nominees suffered from context; Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, both nominees for attorney general who had hired illegal nannies, failed at a time when economic doldrums were multiplying worries over illegal immigration. As a result, Clinton looked out-of-control, his judgment in question.

Obama isn't quite there – yet. Comparisons to the Baird/Wood fiasco aren’t clean. Yes, three of Obama’s nominees have had tax troubles and suffered for it in the midst of an economic crisis. But he hasn't had to nominate three people in succession for the same cabinet post.

Still, Obama had the Clinton episode to instruct him in what not to do. He could also look back to George W. Bush’s disastrous nomination of Bernard Kerik for homeland security secretary, who sunk because of his own illegal nanny problem and a slew of much more serious ethics charges. Obama should have known better. So a new narrative is beginning to replace the old one about Obama's formidable competence: that the freshly inaugurated president is too soft, overly deferential to powerful liberals such as Nancy Pelosi and to political allies such as Tom Daschle and Bill Richardson.

Here's how he might repair the damage: force House Democrats into large, sensible compromises on the stimulus bill. Not just the ones the Republicans might be pushing for, which might just bolster the weak-kneed image, but ones that make for better policy. He should remove nakedly protectionist "buy American" provisions – and not by simply manipulating international trade rules to make such provisions seem more reasonable. And, critically, he must fight to include measures to ensure budget austerity in the medium-term. That starts by ensuring that all this extra spending this year isn’t included in the “baseline” for future budgets. That way, he might win over some of us policy wonks and demonstrate an ability to tame his liberal base.

Obama was right about a few things in his media offensive last night. One was that his legacy depends on the success of the stimulus and his other efforts to save the American economy. Indeed: Not only is this a critical moment of policy creation. It is now that Obama sets the tone for his first term.

By Stephen Stromberg  | February 4, 2009; 11:53 AM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Next: The Republicans' Opportunity


No, what you called competence, most of us saw as perfection; and Obama has been very clear that he would disappoint and make mistakes given that he's a human being and all. Cabinet appointment are disastrous for all presidents but they don't define them. I don't think that anyone would call Clinton an incompetent president.

Given that Obama has spent most of his adult life as a legislator, I think that he understands the need for Congress men/women to exercise their constitutional powers before being painted into a corner. Once everyone has made their arguments, they are fully invested in the process and have to take a position. In the end the Dems will fold and he will walk away looking more bi-partisan than ever.

The Repubs are coming up with so many alternate plans that ultimately they cannot speak with one voice. Obama is still the President of the United States and whenever he speaks to the public, they stop and listen.

Posted by: Eve1978 | February 4, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

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