The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Not Perfect

“You know, look, it's not perfect.”

That was President Obama yesterday, addressing a crowd in Elkhart Indiana about the economic stimulus bill turgidly moving through Congress. By a prime time press conference last evening, Obama waxed on the subject with slightly more articulacy.

“The plan is not perfect. No plan is. I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope.”

Granted, no piece of legislation ever passes into law without room for improvement. Nonetheless, Obama’s use of the term “not perfect” for this particular bill emerges as the clear understatement of the year as well as his Presidency to date.

In many ways, the term “failure” does not apply with the stimulus bill.

The legislature is moving through Congress relatively quickly, albeit slower than Obama wishes, particularly given its unprecedented size. Obama has gotten largely what he wants, both in terms of scope and the mix of tax cuts and spending that make up the package. Both versions of the bill passed their respective houses of Congress and by sufficient majorities to stifle GOP delaying tactics. Changes and concessions were limited and usually improved the final product.

Although some time – again, more than Obama desires – will be required to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions, there is a good chance the final bill will pass Congress by similar or even greater margins.

The problem for Obama with this bill is not what he gets or when he gets it but rather how he gets it. During the Presidential campaign, Obama promised to attempt bringing a bipartisan spirit to Washington. His first major attempt to do so has met with stridently partisan opposition from Republicans.

There are many positives in what Obama has done to promote the stimulus package, despite the GOP’s rejection of it.

He began by speaking of the universal need for stimulus rather than presenting his own uncompromising blueprint for it. He invited key Democratic and Republican leaders to the White House, employing persuasion and a call for unity.

When not a single House Republican voted for the package, Obama stepped up his rhetoric and began using the Presidency as a bully pulpit, speaking directly to the American people. He shifted his focus from all Republicans to potentially persuadable moderates.

While his warnings over dire consequences for failing to act cannot help but recall the fear mongering so common in the recent Bush Administration, they also contained grains of Truth. What is more, Obama never questioned the sincerity or patriotism of those who disagreed with him.

Yet in spite of these laudable efforts, his former Presidential contender, Senator John McCain of Arizona, is correct when he repeatedly criticizes the legislation for its lack of bipartisanship. “Republicans have not been brought in to the degree that we should be,” he told the Washington Times in one interview.

Obama did make a mistake with the stimulus bill and it is important he learn from it going forward. Yet the mistake lies not in how he handled Republican opposition during the process but rather how he handled his Democratic cohorts at the start of it.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California hit the nail on the head when she said, “I think it is important that [Obama] reached out. But lesson learned – It would have been better for him to send up his idea of a bill instead of having House Democratic leaders initiate the process.”

Even more germane than Presidential direction, Democrats must immediately stop the practice of drafting important legislation by a handful of leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Banking Committee Chairperson Barney Frank, and House Appropriations Chairperson David Obey – usually behind closed doors.

This group is both too ingrained in partisan Democratic politics and too timid in their new majority, fearing GOP input even when they know they have the votes that will ensure ultimate passage of any critical elements. By shutting out Republicans at the start, they destroy the necessary buy-in that even Obama’s most sincere requests for input at the end cannot engender.

The difference between the shutout in the House and the few but critical votes won in the Senate illustrate this perfectly. It is probably no coincidence the only three moderate Republicans who wound up voting for the bill were also the ones invited to help compromise on it.

This lack of buy-in made the jobs of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl far too easy and the victories they achieved much less impressive than they exulted over. Then again, politics is all about perception and Obama’s blunder of shutting out Republican input at the start allowed to GOP legislators to coalesce in opposition around the sheer size of the bill.

Writing in the National Journal, Charlie Cook contends, “The House-passed package suggested an effort exclusively of, by, and for Democrats and it played to some of the worst stereotypes of the Democratic Party and of politics as usual on Capitol Hill.”

“In his bipartisan outreach, [Obama] failed to define and defend the major thrust of the House bill, allowing it to be inaccurately portrayed by Republicans . . . as filled with worthless pork,” agrees Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

The latest Rasmussen survey indicates forty-three percent of voters now oppose the stimulus plan, while only thirty-seven percent favor it. Sixty-two percent want the plan to include more tax cuts and less government spending.

The above is true despite the fact a recent Gallup poll found Americans favored government funding of infrastructure improvements and other projects over tax cuts as a superior way to create jobs by a margin of fifty percent to forty-two percent.

The difference between these seemingly conflicting mindsets is a clear victory for Republican partisan propaganda over Obama’s more recent attempts to ratchet up his defense of the stimulus bill.

Yet those who see Republicans as having handed Obama’s promise of bipartisanship next to his head on a platter with these votes are guilty of overstatement.

Some Republicans see and understand the difference between tactical opposition to Obama on stimulus versus a strategic defeat of his long-term goal of bipartisanship.

“The President has done a good job reaching out to Republicans and he has said he wants to approach this crisis . . . on a bipartisan basis. That's good, and we're willing to work with him on that. But this bill is not the President’s bipartisan plan," said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas on Fox News Sunday.

Likewise, the American public rates approval of Obama’s handling of the economic stimulus bill at sixty-seven percent, as opposed to only forty-eight percent for Congressional Democrats and thirty-one percent for Congressional Republicans.

A Rasmussen poll taken at about the same time finds only thirty-nine percent see Obama as guilty of overt partisanship, while the same group finds Congress guilty of partisanship by a margin of fifty-eight percent for Democrats and fifty-two percent for Republicans.

By opposing Obama simply for the sake of opposition, Republicans run the risk of appearing bellicose and obstructionist to necessary progress.

“I'm always concerned when the Republican Party takes a negative position on something that should be moving forward,” worried moderate Republican Representative Michael Castle of Delaware.

“[House Republicans] are talking too much about opposing,” echoes Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer. “They're talking too much about voting ‘no’ and not about how they're going to solve these issues. I'm proud the Party took a stand on principles but I also want to hear about how the Republican Party leaders intend to solve problems.”

Nor is the GOP is likely to win the hearts and minds of voters with boasts like the one from Republican Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who suggested last week that the Party is learning from the disruptive tactics of the Taliban.

Overall, Obama deserves good but not excellent marks for his attempts to bring bipartisanship to Washington. However, his stumbles with the stimulus bill teach an important lesson. He must get his own Party in order before he begins outreach to the opposition.

Actually, that is a pretty good lesson for Republicans in their role as the loyal opposition as well.

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