It's been a rough week for President-elect Barack Obama, but by historical standards, the Obama confirmation is still closer to the mean. Cooperation between the outgoing and incoming administrations has been standard-setting. But tremulousness reached jittery new levels this week , and the source of tensions lies in the institutional identity of the Congress. We may be in a new era of change, transparency and action, but power games in Washington remain kinda the same.
Item: Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, demands more than "mumbo jumbo" from Obama's budget director, who tells him that the team is still drawing the contours of its budget. Obama aides note that it takes a while for a small staff to master an entire budget, much less write one, and that Congress ought to simmer down. Senators want more detail from Obama about how he's going to spend his half of the TARP funds, and they're still wrangling over many of the main proposals in his stimulus package. Obama's veto threat, made implicitly, does not sit well with senators who are under enormous pressure from their constituents to more stringently oversee the funds. It's not that the Democrats don't trust Obama; they don't trust the bureaucracy which Obama will delegate the administration to.
Item: By reducing the size and duration of the tax cuts he'd be willing to tolerate in the stimulus package, Obama comforts Democrats and gives Republicans more of a pretext to oppose the plan. The Obama team still hopes the package will pass by a commanding majority.
Item: Democratic aides say they assume that Obama will be able to sign a universal health care bill by the end of the year; they're less certain, now, about a cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme.
Item: During Clinton's hearing, Sen. Dick Lugar takes the Obama team by surprise, criticizing its memorandum of understanding with the Clinton Foundation. Lugar's argument is that it's often to hard to distinguish between private parties and governments when the source of donations come from overseas. John Kerry endorses Lugar's point of view.
Item: The Obama team chose to wait until Timothy Geithner had his hearing to disclose information about his tax problems and housekeeper's immigration status. Republicans are going to make the case that in finding out these problems and hiding them from the public, Obama's team avoided some sort of due process. In any event, the late disclosure -- a political choice -- has postponed Geithner's hearing; no matter what, Obama had wanted Geithner confirmed before the end of the week.
Item: The Obama team has long expected a showdown with Congress over his first budget. He will likely set a line, and he will threaten to veto the budget if discretionary spending crosses the line. In any event, Obama is going to be constrained in proposing new spending because he's promised conservative and blue dog Democrats that he'll tighten spending rules before -- or as -- he submits the budget.
These obstacles are surmountable. But pass through this list again.
Obama can try to tap his 13-million person e-mail list to pressure Congress from the outside, but it probably won't work. These is no consensus among Democrats and liberal interest groups about spending priorities, or about TARP (actually, the consensus tilts against TARP, to the extent that TARP is something the public understands) and virtually every e-mail this list has received from the Obama post-campaign has been an inaugural fundraising pitch. Obama's supporters need to be retrained and refocused.
Until then, he's going to have to slog through the hard way. Obama's biggest asset continues to be his ineffable star power. After the meeting of the Democratic caucus this week , grumpy senators toned down the notion that Obama is at odds with Congress, and instead pointed to areas where they're nearing agreement.
By Marc Ambinder