It only seems like Barack Obama has been president forever. Actually, as of today, he's been in office for exactly one month. Granted, with 47 months to go in his term, it's too soon to render a verdict on the Obama presidency. But surely a few early reflections on the Obama Revolution in Washington are apt. Here are five of them.
1. Campaigning is governing. Does Obama loathe Washington? It sure looks that way. In the midst of an economic crash, he's spent a surprising number of days away from the White House, delivering speeches to stir support for his stimulus and housing programs and, at least once, to denounce Republicans. In his first month, his trips covered 11 days, including four days in his hometown of Chicago. And that's not counting the two days he spent at Camp David and his visit to Springfield, Virginia, to talk up his stimulus bill.
Not that there's anything wrong with this, but it does represent a different presidential style. Okay, all modern presidents travel a lot. The difference here is one of degree. Obama's job is less the shaping of policies than the promoting of them. The stimulus, after all, was largely produced by congressional Democrats. Was his promotion effective? Yes and no. Support for the stimulus grew to 59 percent (Gallup poll), but an initial bounce in consumer confidence quickly vanished and only 38 percent (Rasmussen poll) now think the stimulus will help the economy. Obama's efforts failed to put pressure on Republicans. Their calls and mail were strongly anti-stimulus. And all but 3 of 219 congressional Republicans voted against it.
2. Obama and Democrats are in sync. This may explain why Obama feels he doesn't need to hang around Washington. Democrats have large majorities in the Senate and House and they aren't likely to deviate from his wishes. They agree on nearly every aspect of big government liberalism. And Republicans can't cause much trouble. Much was made of the unanimous rejection of the stimulus by House Republicans. But there's a flip side. Democrats were united in favor. All 58 Democratic senators voted for the stimulus and that includes moderate Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Michael Bennet of Colorado, who face tough re-election challenges in 2010. The seven House Democrats who voted no might have switched if their votes had been needed.
Obama and Democrats should be enormously encouraged by the stimulus vote. It means that Obama/Democratic initiatives on health care, global warming, housing and who knows what else stand a very good chance of passage. One reason is Republicans aren't likely to stay as united in opposition, particularly on any health care or environmental issues. This Congress may enact more of the hard-core liberal agenda than any since 1965. That's scary.
3. Obama the market killer. The Dow opened at 8281.22 on the morning of Obama's inauguration. Today it opens at 7465.95. That's a vote of practically no confidence in Obama's strategy for reviving the economy. The numbers were worse on the biggest days of the Obama presidency. The Dow fell 332.13 points on inauguration day, 381.99 points on the day Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced step two in the bank bailout, and 297.91 points when the president signed the stimulus bill three days ago. Financial markets are a bet on the future. The market's view is that an Obamanomics-driven economy looks grim.
As best one can tell, economic growth isn't Obama's top priority or even in second place. There's no other conclusion, given the absence of any major economic stimulant or tax incentive in the stimulus package. Rather, it concentrates two things. One is to ameliorate the pain of the recession with government-created jobs, more food stamps, Medicaid, and welfare, and extended jobless benefits. The other is the foot in the door for liberal programs that will be hard to uproot by the next Republican Congress or president.
4. Bipartisanship, Obama-style. Who'd have thought bipartisanship in Washington meant that a president need only meet amicably with his opponents in the other party and he'd done his part? At that point, the opponents are obliged to support whatever the president talked to them about. Well, here is Obama's definition of bipartisanship with Republicans: I talk, you capitulate. No substantive concessions by Obama and Democrats are required. And he and Democrats didn't offer any, except minor ones to the three Senate Republicans who backed his stimulus legislation.
There's a certain bait-and-switch in this. Obama spoke incessantly in the campaign about real bipartisanship that involves ending political polarization and creating a new way of doing business in Washington. Now he's doing business the old way. At his prime time press conference last week, Obama said he'd made "overtures" to Republicans and "the tone I've taken has been consistently civil and respectful." By refusing to line up behind his stimulus bill, one they strongly disliked, Republicans merely showed that "old habits are hard to break," Obama said. " This is one of those times when we have to put that kind of behavior aside." That's Republican behavior, not his.
5. Obama's straw men. Obama may not be eloquent, but he is glib and clever and at times persuasive. One of his favorite rhetorical devices is setting up a straw man, then knocking it down. He invoked this classic ploy subtly in his inaugural address, crudely in his press conference. "We will restore science to its rightful place," Obama said at his inauguration. Really? Where had science been? "We are ready to lead once more," he said, as if we--America--hadn't been. He may have disapproved of the prior administration's policies in the world, but that doesn't mean it wasn't leading. Also in his inaugural speech, Obama said, "we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders." When we were indifferent? Not in Obama's lifetime.
Obama utilized one straw man repeatedly in his session with reporters. He was happy to deal with critics, he insisted, but not with those "who just believe that we should do nothing" in the face of economic trouble. Doing zip may be what libertarians and a few other free market conservatives think, but it's not what Republicans in Congress were proposing. They merely wanted a bill with more economic incentives. Obama said the nub of the issue was this: "We can differ on some of the particulars, but again, the question I think the American people are asking is, do you just want to do nothing or do you want to do something?" Please. Americans aren't asking that. Only Obama is.
By Fred Barnes
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard