Mr. President Goes to Indiana

by Doug Thompson

I’m watching President Barack Obama at his town meeting in Elkhart, Ind. Somebody in the audience asked him a hostile question about the tax problem of some of his appointees. She’s booed down and Obama handles the question easily. It’s such a small thing.
The last president wouldn’t have done that, showed up somewhere where anybody might have showed disagreement. Well, not unless it was a news conference in Iraq.
I’ve been to an opera at the Walton Arts Center that was less staged than the typical Bush administration town meeting with the carefully screened audiences and the pep rally dynamics. Obama’s willingness to show up somewhere where he might be confronted is more of a change in style than in substance, but it’s still noteworthy.
Another thing worth noting is that the president hadn’t been in office a month before his party started telling him to ditch this bipartisan stuff and get his legislation passed. He’d resisted the urge so far and has been roundly criticized by his Democratic supporters for it. This vain seeking of Republican support probably has weakened the bill and let the GOP dictate things they never should have.
It also shows a good-faith effort to get past the partisanship, or at least talks of that during the campaign weren’t just window dressing. His patience made the congressional Republicans look like quibblers while the economy shed 600,000 more jobs. It also made them look like one-trick ponies, trying to use tax cuts as a cure for everything. Then the president calls a news conference and announces that tax cuts aren’t the cure-all for our economic problems.
As analyst Charlie Cook writes: “Swing voters know he reached out for Republican support and was rebuffed by the GOP. For most voters who aren’t Rush Limbaugh listeners, Obama won that exchange.”
If the president ignores the GOP now and enacts a bill without their support, he will look far more justified than he would have a month earlier.
Public policy-wise, Obama’s methods may have caused some delay. Politically, they’re shrewd. This may drive fans of substantive public policy crazy, but it may make Obama a more effective president once the 100 days are over.
A poll of 800 registered voters was conducted Jan. 21 to 24 by Financial Dynamics. It has a 3.5-point margin of error. It asked whether voters would prefer a Democrat or Republican for Congress in 2010. The Democratic advantage was 46-22 percent — a 24 percent gap.
The Republicans still in Congress are the ones that are in very safe seats. Their big re-election worry is a Republican primary opponent, not a Democratic challenger. They’re more entrenched than ever in what appears to be a losing proposition of opposing the president for the sake of opposing the president.
Obama’s also maneuvered his Democratic majority in Congress into the “do something now” position. The Democratic House is in no position to argue with the final bill either.
It’s all a matter of how urgent the crisis is. Do we need a president who’s at his most effective now, or one that will be able to influence events a year from now? There’s a considerable argument to be made that this is a crisis demanding immediate, effective and drastic action. There’s also an argument to be made that this crisis isn’t going to be over in a year and that we’ll need a president able to influence events in that time.
For now, I’m willing to follow Obama’s instinct. He doesn’t need to gamble all his political chips right now. He does not need to make this stimulus bill the make-or-break bet of his administration. He needs to give it a try and, if it doesn’t work, come back with something stronger and purely economic and not so political. He needs to give his opponents — Republican and Democrats — rope to hang themselves.
That’s going to be tough on a lot of people who are going to lose their jobs in the next six months. It’s also a clear gamble with the economy. But there is no safe course now. Obama’s instincts have been pretty good so far. Let’s see how far they’ll get him. That kind of trust is what leadership is all about.

Categories: Features