Why Obama Is Holding Back

By Dan Froomkin
12:53 PM ET, 02/ 6/2009

Obama with House Democrats

Obama speaking to House Democrats last night. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

What's holding President Obama back from wielding his considerable political power like a club and smashing the Republican congressional opposition to his stimulus package?

Well, less and less these days. Here is Obama speaking to the House Democratic caucus yesterday:

"We can't embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face; that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or falling schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees. I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV -- if you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change direction. (Applause.) That's what the American people called for in November, and that's what we intend to deliver. (Applause.)"

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Obama is losing the all-important spin campaign to Republicans -- and that it's time for him to flex some muscle. Washington Post opinion columnist David Ignatius blogged yesterday that it's time for Obama to display some "Clint Eastwood-style bravura" as he bargains with the GOP. The Washington Post editorial board wrote yesterday that Obama should demand that Democrats slash the bill's price tag and breadth.

But Obama's basic response to the criticism that he is not playing the Washington game right is that it shouldn't be a game in the first place. And the reason he has let Congress shape the bill rather than doing it himself is that he thinks that's the way American government is supposed to work.

Is it possible we've gotten so used to the way former President Bush played the game -- and rolled Congress -- that we are judging Obama by his standard? And if so, is that the right standard? What explains Obama's conduct? Is it naivete, or is it humility?

Just hours after this morning's staggering job loss numbers came out, Obama again urged Congress to act. "I am sure that at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, members of the Senate are reading these same numbers this morning," he said. "I hope they share my sense of urgency and draw the same, unmistakable conclusion: the situation could not be more serious. These numbers demand action. It is inexcusable and irresponsible to get bogged down in distraction and delay while millions of Americans are being put out of work. It is time for Congress to act. It is time to pass an Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan to get our economy moving again."

But he didn't quibble with the bill the congressional process had created or take sides in the current Senate debates. "There may be provisions in the bill that need to be left out and some that need to be added. But broadly speaking, it is the right size. It is the right scope."

For eight years, the executive branch utterly eclipsed the legislative. But consider what a different view Obama expressed in that same speech yesterday: "I value the constructive criticism and the healthy debate that's taking place around this package, because that's the essence, the foundation of American democracy. That's how the founders set it up. They set it up to make big change hard. It wasn't supposed to be easy. That's part of the reason why we've got such a stable government, is because no one party, no one individual can simply dictate the terms of the debate. I don't think any of us have cornered the market on wisdom, or that do I believe that good ideas are the province of any party. The American people know that our challenges are great. They're not expecting Democratic solutions or Republican solutions -- they want American solutions. And I've said that same thing to the public, and I've said that, in a gesture of friendship and goodwill, to those who have disagreed with me on aspects of this plan."

And talking about all the jobs that have been lost, Obama had this to say: "This is not a game. This is not a contest for who's in power and who's up and who's down. These are your constituents. These are families you know and you care about. I believe that it is important for us to set aside some of the gamesmanship in this town and get something done."

Washington Post reporter Michael D. Shear sees the plan testing Obama's powers of persuasion, and sees "mixed results" so far.

And, he writes: "It is an early reminder that there are limits to presidential power, even for a charismatic new chief executive who is immensely popular with the American people. 'Obama wants a different politics, but the system of a bill becoming a law hasn't changed,' said Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University. The House vote 'suggests he may not yet understand the institutional checks and balances that limit a president's salesmanship.'"

I don't agree. How a bill became a law changed a lot about eight years ago. Obama sees Congress's role in a more traditional light -- and seems OK with that. "We’ve got 535 people who feel it's their responsibility to represent their constituents and make their voices heard," Obama said in an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer on Sunday. "Democracy is always a somewhat messy process."

Meanwhile, reporters are noting that Obama is getting more aggressive -- and partisan.

Jonathan Weisman and Naftali Bendavid write in the Wall Street Journal: "Frustrated by Republican unity against his economic-stimulus plan, President Barack Obama toughened his rhetoric Thursday and moved to wield his personal popularity to overcome opposition in Congress....

"Republican proposals are "rooted in the idea that tax cuts alone can solve all our problems, that government doesn't have a role to play, that half measures and tinkering are somehow enough, that we can afford to ignore our most fundamental economic challenges," the president said in an address at the Department of Energy Thursday. "Those ideas have been tested, and they have failed."...

"Mr. Obama's comments Thursday signaled an escalation of his own role in the fray. "When you hear these attacks...you have to ask yourself, are these folks serious?" Mr. Obama asked...

"Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) said the White House has learned a lesson this week about his erstwhile Republican legislative partners. While Democrats may have seen a tectonic political shift regarding the role of government after their electoral sweep in November, the GOP did not.

"'This has been an early lesson for President Obama and his team,' Mr. Schumer said. 'The idea of getting 80 votes in the Senate is now a distant memory, even though it's two weeks old.'"

Voices from the left are saying it's about time.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "We’re happy to see President Obama getting tough with Congressional Republicans who are trying to sabotage the stimulus and recovery bill and bring even greater ruin on the economy....

"We know Mr. Obama is capable of uniting disparate groups. That comes with a tendency toward conciliation, which we admire, but we hope he resists it now. Mr. Obama made concessions on the House version of the economic plan, and no Republican voted for it."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to economic recovery. Over the last two weeks, what should have been a deadly serious debate about how to save an economy in desperate straits turned, instead, into hackneyed political theater, with Republicans spouting all the old clichés about wasteful government spending and the wonders of tax cuts....

"Somehow, Washington has lost any sense of what’s at stake — of the reality that we may well be falling into an economic abyss, and that if we do, it will be very hard to get out again....

"It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk. The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge."

David Corn blogs for Mother Jones that Obama needs to reach out "to the millions of Americans who are rooting for him in order to obtain their active support for his economic stimulus plan....

"What Obama has that none of the other players in Washington possess is political capital. He literally represents the hopes of millions. He harnessed those aspirations for his campaign. He must do the same for his presidency."

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