The Quickie Honeymoon

Illustration by André Carrilho

Tom Daschle never wanted to be secretary of Health and Human Services. Sure, he cared about health-care reform; sure, his combo of policy chops and legislative savvy arguably made him uniquely qualified for the task. But for much of last year, Daschle told friends that the job he coveted was White House chief of staff—until Barack Obama turned over that assignment to Rahm Emanuel. Daschle’s second choice, I’m told by one of his pals, was secretary of State, and he apparently was in the running for it—until Obama seized on the idea of giving the gig to Hillary Clinton. There are countless ironies surrounding the collapse of the Daschle nomination, but not least was that his humiliation came in pursuit of a consolation prize. Whether that made the pain greater or lesser is impossible to guess. But either way, the hurt was big.

And for Obama too—though what’s less clear is how long the bruise will last. The obvious parallel to the Daschle debacle is the Zoë Baird imbroglio, wherein Bill Clinton’s initial nominee for attorney general was forced to withdraw on Clinton’s first full day in office. Then as now, the salient controversy involved the failure to pay taxes on an haute bourgeois indulgence: in Daschle’s case, a borrowed car and driver; in Baird’s, a nanny and chauffeur who were undocumented immigrants. (Will these people never learn?) But once Clinton finally settled on Janet Reno as his AG, Baird was swiftly rendered a footnote in the annals of his presidency—and it’s easy to imagine a similar outcome in the case of Daschle.

Yet there is another, less benign reading of the Baird analogy. For Clinton, the episode was the first in a series of missteps (gays in the military, etc.) that culminated in the failure of his first significant legislative initiative: his $16 billion stimulus package. Even more damaging, however, was the cumulative degradation of Clinton’s political standing: He lost control of the agenda, the narrative, and his public image.

It should go without saying that 2009 isn’t 1993. And that 44 is a far cry from 42. Indeed, Obama’s handling of the Daschle fallout—the candid, grown-up, self-pity-free mea culpas that he offered in succession to five network anchors—was so refreshing and utterly un-Clintonian that it almost turned the entire embarrassment into a net positive for him. Moreover, Obama will almost certainly get his stimulus in the end, and winning salves many wounds. But in the process the president has been scuffed up, put on the defensive, come perilously close to losing the thread. At a minimum, it’s crashingly clear that his honeymoon is (already!) over.

The quick end of that sweet and blissful interval comes as something of a shock. There were five good reasons to expect that Obama’s runway would be longer and less littered with obstructions than usual. The first was the smoothness of his transition and the superstar-laden lineup he installed. The second was the scale of the economic and financial crisis that confronts the country, which would seem to have raised the political cost of rank obstructionism. The third was the consensus from left to right that supersize action was required. The fourth was the magnitude of Obama’s electoral victory and the mandate it ostensibly bestowed. And fifth were his skills as a communicator, which even his staunchest foes were apt to compare to Ronald Reagan’s.

That these five factors have produced something less than a nirvana-like political environment can be blamed on an array of villains. The irresponsibility of congressional Republicans regarding the stimulus. The ham-fistedness of congressional Democrats (and their propensity to paint targets on their backs). The economic illiteracy of almost every talking head on cable. But there’s no denying that the bulk of the blame must be laid at the feet of the Obamans, who have squandered or let lay idle almost every political advantage they possessed at the outset.

Begin with the transition, so widely hailed back in December, but which by now is ripe for reappraisal. The Bill Richardson thing was a warning sign, since everyone in Democratic politics knew he had vetting issues. Then we have three major nominees—Daschle, Tim Geithner, and Nancy Killefer—who have run afoul of the tax code. Finally, we have the unseemly business of the waivers from Obama’s lobbying standards being handed out to Geithner’s chief of staff, who lobbied for Goldman Sachs, and the deputy secretary of Defense, who lobbied for Raytheon, on the grounds that, um, every policy has exemptions. Oh.

Unpleasant as all this has been, however, its political impact would have been substantially less had the stimulus been sailing along. But the House vote turned into a partisan knife fight, with Republicans slashing giddily at the dubious provisions—the contraceptives, the resodding of the National Mall—inserted by Democrats, carving it up as a fatback-festooned monstrosity concocted by drunk-at-the-punch-bowl liberals, winning the war to define the bill in the media.

The Republican Mau-Mauing of the stimulus package has reinforced a persistent critique from Obama’s left: that his strategy of focusing on bi-partisanship was naïve or simply nuts—because Republicans would inevitably do … well, exactly what they’ve done. But it strikes me that Obama’s quest for cross-party comity and collaboration isn’t what’s been most damaging. The problem has been the institutional deference that he and his team have shown to the congressional leadership, giving them guiding principles but also wide latitude to cobble together the bill. That meant ceding enormous power to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and their posses, a move that even an untrained eye could have seen had three words written all over it: recipe for disaster.

Neither Obama nor (especially) Emanuel is remotely so myopic as to have missed that warning. So what were they doing? Partly behaving in that weirdly passive-aggressive way that is sometimes Obama’s wont—his propensity to try to float above the fray, keeping his fingernails clean. But another part was rooted in a distinctly Rahmian calculation: Let Pelosi and her peeps do their worst, leak word that Obama was displeased with the outré stuff that crept into the legislation, then rely on the Senate to pare back the effluvia, in the process creating a bill that would not only secure the requisite 60 votes (to avoid a filibuster) in the upper chamber but emerge as moderate enough to bring some of the saner House Republicans onboard in the end.

The problems with this approach were twofold, however. It underestimated the extent to which Republicans would be successful at undermining the bill and thus how much trouble they’d stir up in the Senate. And that dynamic, in turn, was exacerbated by the egregious ball-dropping of the administration when it came to framing the bill. “The failure of the White House in terms of messaging has been colossal,” says one top Democratic strategist. “It’s almost as if they didn’t think they needed to sell it. As if it was so self-evidently necessary, and Obama’s popularity so huge, that passing the thing would be a cakewalk.”

For two crucial weeks, indeed, the White House communications breakdown was all-encompassing. The administration failed to do the little stuff: deploying persuasive surrogates to campaign for the package on TV. It failed to do the big stuff: hammer the theme that the nation is in crisis, that a depression looms, that political inertia carries grave risks of economic calamity. When Obama talked about the bill, his words and demeanor lacked, to bowdlerize a phrase, the fierce urgency of … anything. When his team made their case, they focused on process rather than substance, ignoring the imperatives of language, speaking (abstrusely) of “stimulus” or (vaguely) of “recovery” instead of “jobs”—and into that rhetorical vacuum, the Republicans stepped in with “pork.”

Then, with public support for the stimulus slipping and the possibility of a filibuster threatening, Obama and his people shifted gears. Suddenly, the economic team was unspooling state-by-state job-creation numbers. Suddenly, the president was warning that inaction could lead to “catastrophe,” trashing “criticisms of this plan that frankly echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis.” There were plans for a prime-time news conference and perhaps an address from the Oval Office.

No doubt all this will help the package overcome the hurdles that remain. No doubt the celebration that ensues when it’s signed into law will be loud and triumphal. And let me be clear: I have no doubt that whatever emerges after the House and Senate merge their bills will be better than nothing. But it’s still going to be a dog’s breakfast—and far from the best thing that Obama could have achieved. Economists don’t like it. The left ain’t happy with it. The right positively deplores it. All of which would be fine, of course, if the damn thing works.

The question, of course, is how “works” is defined—and that’s where the politics kicks in. This time next year, it’s altogether plausible that the recession will still be raging. Will the stimulus therefore be seen to have failed? Or as having succeeded in staving off something worse? The greater risk for Obama, however, is that neither of these perceptions will be foremost in voters’ minds, but that the stimulus will be recalled as just another partisan Washington goat rodeo that accomplished precious little—at a cost of nearly $1 trillion. Back in 1993, what undermined Clinton was the perception that, far from being a different kind of Democrat capable of transforming Washington, he was just more of the same-old same-old. To avoid that fate will require Obama to step up his game, take control, and resist the urge to hand over the reins to Pelosi and Reid, let alone John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Change you can believe in can’t be outsourced. Least of all to Capitol Hill.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

The Quickie Honeymoon