Barack Obama is back where he spent the past two years-on the campaign trail. He has been visiting recession-wracked towns,wooing carefully-chosen journalists and drumming up support on the internet. But Mr Obama is also learning that governing is different from campaigning. Selling hope and change was one thing. Selling a 1,100-page stimulus package that has just emerged from the legislative mill is quite another.
The Republicans have spent the past week arguing that Mr Obamas bill has destroyed any claims that he might have had to be a reformer,partly because the $787 billion bill is stuffed full of boondoggles,but also because of the way that it was sledge-hammered through the legislature. During his long campaign Mr Obama repeatedly promised two things: to reach out to Republicans and Democrats rather than pandering to his supporters,and to let in as much light as possible on the people’s business.
But his bill represented the triumph of business as usual,passed with just three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House,and concocted in secret by the Democratic leadership,a trio of north-eastern Republican senators and a handful of White House aides. Not a single legislator who voted on the mammoth bill can have read it all.
The two devils of partisanship and opacity reinforced each other. Democratic legislators used the power of the gavel and the shield of secrecy to stuff the bill with truffles for their states and,worse,gifts for the interest-groups that pay their bills. The package sends a protectionist signal by including a number of “Buy American” provisions (though these have,admittedly,been watered down). It also sneakily interferes with the financial-services industry,laying down stern limits on pay and making it harder for foreigners to get visas to work there. Incredibly,many of the details emerged only after the bill had been passed.
Mr Obama bears a disproportionate share of the blame for the resurrection of the old politics. True,the politicians on Capitol Hill are guilty of producing the bill’s worst excesses. The Democrats treated it as an excuse for partisan advantage,while the Republicans refused to concede that the economy needed a stimulus at all,making give-and-take impossible. But it was Mr Obama who made the fatal error of contracting the writing of the bill to Congress. Mr Obama is surrounded by people,including Joe Biden,his vice-president,and Rahm Emanuel,his chief of staff,who know better than anyone how Congress works. Nancy Pelosi,the speaker of the House of Representatives,is one of the most tribal politicians in the business-Tom DeLay in a pantsuit. Harry Reid,the majority leader in the Senate,is up for re-election next year and has a popularity rating of less than 50%. Mr Obama might have opted to send a “clean” bill to Congress and to use the economic crisis to force it through without too many additions. Instead,he chose to please his party barons.
Getting it wrong
That is a strike against Mr Obama,to be sure. But he nevertheless seems to be
winning the overall game. This is partly
because he pushed a stimulus bill through in record time. Most people recognise that,with the country shedding jobs at the rate of 600,000 a month,the fierce urgency of now trumps hope and change. But it is also because the
Republicans are in danger of overplaying their hand-fixating on railways,golf carts and so on while seeming to ignore the unfolding economic catastrophe.
The Republicans are certainly excited. Conservative talk radio is loud with condemnation of the porculus bill. Eric Cantor,the Republicans’ ambitious chief whip,has released a pork-mocking YouTube video to the tune of Aerosmiths Back in the Saddle. He also claims to be studying the tactics of Winston Churchill for inspiration. The recently demoralised Republican caucus is now abuzz with talk of the Gingrich insurgency,when successful Republican opposition to Bill Clinton’s agenda prepared the way for the
party’s seizure of the House and Senate
But this strategy is rife with risk. The economic situation is far worse than in the early 1990s. And Mr Obama is a much more powerful president than Mr Clinton was in 1993,with approval ratings in the mid-60s,a big electoral mandate,and something very close to a supermajority in the Senate. Voters may decry the party-line voting on the stimulus bill. But they are also struck by Mr Obama’s attempts to court Republicans: in polls 74% say Mr Obama is doing enough to co-operate with Republicans,while 60% say the Republicans are not doing enough to co-operate with Mr Obama. Voters may disapprove of many of the details of the stimulus package. But they also recognise that the economy needs a huge turbocharge to rescue it from free fall.
The Republicans risk opening themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. How can people who voted for budget-busting tax cuts and spending increases during the Bush years now have the nerve to pose as fiscal conservatives? They are also
vulnerable to charges of America-be-damned obstructionism. Rush Limbaugh may delight his fans when he says,of Obama,that I want everything hes
doing to fail. But Republican congressmen have to deal with the fact that
Mr Obama’s failure would plunge the country into disaster.
The Republicans are also paying a direct price for their obstructionism-surrendering what influence they might have had over impending legislation (and playing into Ms Pelosi’s hands in the process). The Obama administration is contemplating some of the most far-reaching reforms of health-care and energy policy for decades. But if they continue on their current tack the Republicans risk having no seats at the table and no voice in the debate. Mr Obama may have lost his innocence in the past few weeks. But the Republicans are in danger of losing much more than that if they march to the sound of Mr Limbaugh’s drum and declare war on the Obama administration.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009