With his economic stimulus bill facing a rockier path than he’d hope, a different Barack Obama emerged Thursday.
Gone was the conciliatory rhetoric and gentle wooing of the GOP.
Instead appeared a president sounding like the candidate he was a few months ago, passionately and unmistakably chastising Republicans and reminding Americans of the policies they so soundly rejected on Election Day.
In a fired-up, mostly impromptu speech to House Democrats in Williamsburg, Va., Thursday night, Obama accused his Republican critics of wanting to return to “the same policies that for the last eight years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin.”
“I don’t care whether you’re driving a hybrid or an SUV,” he said. "If you’re headed for a cliff, you have to change direction. That’s what the American people called for in November, and that’s what we intend to deliver.”
It was new rhetoric delivered with a more insistent tone – one reminiscent of the final days of the campaign — and it offers a preview of the emphatic final argument Obama will make in the week before his self-imposed deadline to get the bill passed.
And, fittingly, it comes as Obama takes his case for the stimulus on the road.
The president is scheduled to hold his first White House news conference Monday and will then leave Washington early next week to hold campaign-style events centered on getting the recovery measure passed, according to a source familiar with the trip.
Sixteen days into his administration, Obama’s language and tone reflected a new urgency to put the self-inflicted wounds of his discarded personnel picks behind him and to ramp up his push to get the central priority of his new administration passed.
Although senators broke off a late-night session without a deal Thursday night, Both Obama aides and congressional Democrats express confidence that a final version of the bill will, as planned, reach the president’s desk before the Congress leaves town for its Presidents’ Day Recess.
But they acknowledge, some publicly and others privately, that for all of Obama’s popularity and the wide public support for taking steps to boost the economy, getting to final passage has not been easy, clearing a bill with broad bipartisan support is out of the question and the process has not been a pretty one for the new president.
“There’s no question that there’s been a distracting debate over particular elements of the package,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Alabama), an Obama ally who joined the president and other lawmakers to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Davis wouldn’t point fingers, but there is a view among those close to Obama that the House version included too many unneeded provisions, including such public relations embarrassments as funding to refurbish the National Mall and for contraceptives, and that veteran Democratic appropriators did them no favors.
“Candidly, there are some things in the Senate bill that are better than the House bill,” is all Davis would say.
Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), another Obama friend who also watched the Steelers-Cardinals from the White House theater, went a little further.
“There are a number of things that were placed in this that were misguided,” Casey said. “It makes it harder to make the case for the bill when a particular provision is not connected to jump starting the economy and creating jobs.”
There was no political calculation as to how such add-ons would play, he lamented.
“We probably, including me, when the focus started on the one percent [of extraneous items in the bill] we didn’t go out enough to say, ‘Let’s talk about the 99 percent which will be good.’ We played defense for a while.”
But congressional Democrats who are less loyal to bama pointed the finger back up Pennsylvania Avenue.
“There’s no message out of the White House,” said one House Democrat, who faulted Obama for letting the Republicans and the media own the P.R. battle on the bill.
“We are getting plucked apart on these stimulus issues – like money for the Mall lawn -- and they are doing no driving of the good stuff.”
One senior Hill aide acknowledged the signs of tension, but said there was recognition by most in the Democratic caucus that they needed to accommodate Obama.
“There is grumbling but it’s not at a threshold where the top is about to pop off,” said this aide. “We can’t let this fail. Our fate and Obama are intertwined.”
That was certainly the message coming out of the Democrats’ retreat in Williamsburg Thursday. Before Obama arrived, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told her colleagues that they “have Obama’s back.” Obama called Pelosi “the great speaker” and “a rock,” and he said her House Democrats had passed their version of the stimulus bill with the “discipline” that the situation required.
The atmosphere was similarly harmonious when Obama addressed Senate Democrats in private Wednesday at their retreat at Washington’s Newseum. He assured his former colleagues that he would reach out to Republicans – but “not at the expense of the American people,” an attendee recalled.
Another person present said the president allayed any concerns that the senators may have had.
“I think his sense of urgency and strength came through,” recalled this person. “He walked into a room in which some folks were getting nervous, and conveyed utter fearlessness. He told them that he had the right policy - and the politics would take care of itself.”
Democrats on the Hill and on K Street say Obama is learning that taming Congress and the capital is far more difficult than winning an election, even for a president who enjoys as much good will as this one.
“This was never going to be a case where his personal popularity or approval ratings would change the system,” said one former high-ranking Clinton White House official.
Of Obama and his senior aides, this Democrat said: “They’re being reminded that these things are never easy.”
A former top Hill staffer said Obama was encountering the difference between “campaigning and governing.”
“You just don’t control all the levers of messaging now,” said this Democrat. “Congress is not like campaign audiences.”
But some Democrats seem overjoyed that Obama the president is sound more like Obama the candidate again. Noting that Obama seemed to abandon his TelePrompter about a third of the way through his speech in Williamsburg Thursday night, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said: “He went to his heart, I think he spoke from his heart. He went back to being the Barack Obama that Americans fell in love with when they went to the polls.”
And despite the back and forth, most veteran Democrats believe that Obama’s stimulus setbacks have been relatively mild, especially compared to the problems suffered by past administrations.
“Look, I worked for President Carter, and this is very different,” said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist.
Devine made his point by singling out the top staffers for the two Democrats, one an outsider not schooled on the ways of Washington and the other the consummate Beltway operator.
“When Carter came in, he made Ham Jordan chief of staff, not Rahm Emanuel,” Devine said. “And they were very suspicious of everything Washington.”
Paul Begala, a top aide in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, said the unsightly sausage-making of these early days will be long fogotten if Obama is able to revive the economy.
“He knows that his presidency will be judged on the results of his economic recovery package -- the results,” Begala said. “Yet the coverage and the commentary and the criticism have been all about the process. At this stage of President Clinton's presidency, he was facing the same criticism and confronting the same resistance. He passed his plan by the narrowest margin possible and on a strict party-line basis. The Washington Post called him a failed president, Time magazine called him ‘the Incredible Shrinking Presidency.’ But those comments are in the dustbin of history, and President Clinton is rightly regarded as a master of the economy. I think President Obama can expect the same near-term pain -- and the same long-term gain. He is nothing if not a long-term thinker.”
Those who have been with Obama in the opening weeks of his presidency confirm that he is not letting the job get to him.
“He doesn’t overreact and doesn’t panic,” said Casey, when asked about Obama’s mood last Sunday. “He’s unflappable in a way you’d like the commander in chief to be.”
A senior Obama aide rattled off a list of early accomplishments -- a mix of executive orders and bill signings – to make the case that any suggestion of a rough start was a media concoction.
Of these, Davis singled out a new law expanding children’s health care.
“I’m willing to bet you a year from now that many more people will appreciate the benefits of SCHIP than the tax travails of those once in line for an administration appointment,” he said.