The pages of punditdom are full today of breathless questions about the Obama White House. Is Obama an incompetent empty suit as the right was charging all those months? What happened to the candidate who so confidently talked of hope and change, igniting a grass roots political effort this nation has never seen? Is the Obama Administration already “in trouble” - whatever that means?
Rule Number 1 for success as a serious commentator on politics is never get too far ahead of the pack. In this respect, it appears that many of my fellow bloggers - especially on the right side of the sphere - are sipping some heavy duty koolade. A couple of missteps by the newbies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and we’re already talking about an “Epic Fail” for the Obama presidency? Let’s hope not. If Obama “fails” it will mean this nation will go into an economic tailspin the likes of which haven’t been seen since Clark Gable was the bees knees and Al Jolsen could wear blackface and sing about his “Mammy.”
Actually, I am exaggerating a bit. But there is no doubt the subtext of many analyses is that Obama is not inspiring much confidence so far and that in some areas - personnel selection, Congressional relations, and foreign policy - he has shown a troubling lack of basic competence. In vetting his cabinet, controlling the debate on his stimulus bill, and moving to assure the rest of the world, Obama has stumbled, froze, and failed to engender confidence in his leadership overseas.
It must be pointed out that there is nothing new in this, that a new president and his people have to get the kinks out of their operation as they power up. Talk of “hitting the ground running” is all well and good but, as Theodore H. White pointed out in his brilliant Making of a President series, all Administrations eventually face a period as Obama and his people have faced the last 72 hours. That is, the “well oiled machine” of the campaign runs smack into the reality of governing a nation. New faces and personalities with new responsibilities take time to mesh. This is made especially obvious in their Congressional outreach operation and the seemingly incomprehensible surrender of the process on the stimulus bill to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. The Democrats loaded up what is essentially an infrastructure and jobs bill with so much outrageous pork having nothing whatsoever to do with stimulating anything (except perhaps the saliva glands of Democratic constituencies) that Republicans in the House were able to safely band together and reject it. Support for that monstrosity in its current incarnation is dropping like a stone, a fact not lost on Senate Republicans or Democrats.
The fact that so many items have already been dropped from the measure shows that the White House simply didn’t think this thing through very thoroughly. Allowing liberal Democrats to lard up the bill with goodies for teachers, unions, feminists, and other loyalists and then using the economic crisis to try and ram it down the throats of the country has been exposed and it doesn’t make the Administration look very good. The Senate could pull Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire and radically alter the package, reducing its cost substantially while doing a better job of targeting tax cuts and infrastructure improvements where it will do the most good. If that occurs, the Administration would do well not to fight it but rather embrace the alterations in the Senate and then try and convince Pelosi and House Democrats to go along with the changes.
At least the stimulus bill is salvageable. But what about the rash of personnel problems being experienced by the Obama White House? Two cabinet nominees have already withdrawn with another presidential appointee Nancy Killefer also walking the plank. That doesn’t include a tax dodging Treasury Secretary and an Attorney General who has proven adept at playing politics at the Justice Department when it suits the goals of the man in the Oval Office. (See Marc Rich and Puerto Rican terrorists.) There has also been a rash of appointments where the president has gone back on his promise not to hire lobbyists for his administration. Politico counts 12 former lobbyists so far which gives a whole new meaning to “Hope and Change” - as in, “I hope no one will notice what a hypocrite I am by hiring all these lobbyists who won’t change much of anything.”
Amazingly, the only appointee who has had relatively smooth sailing so far is - Hillary Clinton? But don’t worry. With Bill Clinton on the loose, something is bound to pop up to embarrass everyone. The smart money is on women trouble but I’d lay odds that it will be a money issue that explodes in Obama’s face.
Perhaps even more troubling than the withdrawals and the reasons for them is the fact that the Obama people apparently knew of both Geithner and Daschle’s tax problems before announcing their names. This wasn’t a matter of bad vetting, just a tone deaf approach to the process. How could they possibly think that no one would care that the Treasury and HHS Secretaries are tax scofflaws.
And while we’re on the subject of insensitivity, the Administration’s response to the suffering of people in the Midwest as a result of the winter storm may not have reached the Katrina level of “Heckuva job, Brownie” but has certainly not been Obama’s finest hour. His aide David Axelrod brags about how warm the Oval Office is while people are shivering in unheated homes? The president dines on exotic steak while some can’t get out of their driveways to go to the grocery store? He has chosen to remain virtually silent on the tragedy, quite rightly fearing comparisons with Katrina. Meanwhile, a week after the storm winds stopped, there are still tens of thousands without power in Kentucky alone. The National Guard has just now made it to Western Kentucky and officials are going door to door to hand out welfare checks.
My ironic post on the storm’s aftermath and the failure of FEMA to alleviate suffering in a timely manner scooted over the head of most lefties without even musing their hair. The feds are not to blame for this suffering, Mother Nature is. But I found the schadenfreude irresistable in that it was the left who chose to politicize natural disasters and Obama will almost certainly have his own “Katrina moment” eventually.
And Obama’s initial steps into the foreign policy arena have not been without a slip or two. His interview with Al-Arabiya TV - the first interview he granted following his inauguration - was chock full of moral equivalence and a curious detatchment about Iran’s ambitions, undercutting his own sanctions policy at the UN in the process.
But the reported rift between Obama and the military brass may prove most damaging in the long run. Obama cannot simply say “I won” to Petreaus and the Chiefs - especially since he promised to listen to the commanders before committing to a hard timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Well, he apparently thinks it better that he keep a campaign promise to the anti-war crowd than follow the advice of his generals. This is his prerogative, of course. And it may end up being a tempest in a teapot. But the potential for trouble between Obama and the military when we have a war to win yet in Afghanistan does not bode well for the future.
But given all these pratfalls and miscalculations, Obama is still in good shape with the people who elected him. They are much more willing to stick with him than right wing pundits and mainstream media critics who seek to create a little news by trying to rain on the president’s honeymoon. He still has plenty of time to right the ship. And admitting mistakes is a good first step.
But if the president continues to stumble over the next few weeks, then he can expect the tenor of the criticism directed against him to change. America doesn’t have time to break in a new president. Fairly, or unfairly, Obama will not have the luxury of a long, leisurely shake down cruise for his Administration. He has already lost a significant amount of goodwill with his faux pas. Given the enormous challenges we face, it would behoove the new Administration to get its act together sooner rather than later.
As usual, Ed Morrissey and I are on something of the same wavelength this morning.