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.