Our new president has had a pretty good first week in office. In his "first 168 hours" (for those of you who love arbitrary timelines for the "honeymoon" period), he has made good on quite a few campaign promises, sent an envoy to the Middle East on a "listening tour," and pushed his stimulus package in Congress. All around, an impressive first week by any standard.
The San Francisco Chronicle has a nice list of the executive orders President Obama has been issuing all week. These are the "low hanging fruit" types of issues that Obama can change with nothing but his signature, and almost all of them fulfill promises he made on the campaign trail:
- Ordered plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq.
- Froze the pay of White House staff earning more than $100,000 a year.
- Restricted lobbying by officials who leave the administration.
- Broadened compliance with open-records rules and lifted Bush's restrictions on the release of presidential records.
- Froze all proposed federal rule changes left unfinished by the Bush administration. They relate to the Endangered Species Act, labor relations and other fields.
- Ordered the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within one year.
- Tightened limits on interrogation tactics by Central Intelligence Agency officers.
- Removed financing restrictions on groups that provide or discuss abortion overseas.
- Instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider whether to grant California a waiver to regulate automobile tailpipe emissions linked to global warming.
- Ordered the Transportation Department to issue guidelines that will ensure that the nation's auto fleet reaches an average fuel efficiency of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, if not earlier.
Like I said, a pretty productive week just on that measure alone. However, these types of things are called low-hanging fruit for a reason -- they're easy to identify and easy to rectify -- but there's a limited number of them, and when they're gone then the work gets harder.
Sending George Mitchell over to the Middle East is, at this point, preparatory work for the harder lifting to come later, but it certainly is a welcome development. Mitchell just exudes fairness and uprightness, and ever since he drove the effort to solve the Northern Ireland troubles, he has been seen as somewhat of a miracle worker in the foreign policy realm. Imagery is important in the Middle East, and just the fact that he's going with an open mind to listen to all sides could improve the tone of the dialog right away. This doesn't mean we should expect peace in the Middle East in the next few weeks, but it's a healthy step in the right direction at least.
It's a bit harder to figure out what Obama is doing on the stimulus package. In the media, the Republicans seem to be emboldened (although it is hard to figure why), and they have done a good job framing the issue in their own language. Obama appears to be bending over backward to get their input, but the real question is what he will do next. How you see things at this juncture depends on how cynical you are about the workings of Washington.
Is Obama trying for an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in both houses of Congress? He would like a 70 or 80 "yea" vote in the Senate, from all accounts. Whether this is a reasonable bar to set, or raising unmeetable expectations remains to be seen.
This is a game of tug-of-war, and it's hard to see what the outcome is going to be. Republicans in the House and Senate have to decide whether they want to get on board with the stimulus plan or not. Their political calculation goes something like this: If they support it and it works, they'll be OK. If it works and they didn't support it, they may pay a political price with moderate voters. If it doesn't work and they opposed it, then they will also be OK and be able to say "we told you so." If it fails and they supported it, they may pay a price with their base.
Meaning it is not at all clear which way they're going to jump. Most House Republicans seem to be betting that it will fail, and therefore feel safe opposing it. House districts are often extremely safe districts, so they may not worry so much about their voters making them pay, even if it does wind up working. So, at this point, they're loudly opposing it to any media type that will run tape of them doing so.
Obama, meanwhile, is extending his hand across the aisle and listening to the GOP. He even appears to be snubbing his own party in an effort to get Republicans on board with his plan. Now, this could reap political rewards for him, no matter what happens.
Because one of two things is going to eventually happen. The Republicans could decide that they've won enough concessions to actually support the plan. In this case, Obama slightly annoys people who wanted a more progressive package, but he also boosts his popularity among centrist voters who see him actually making good on his promise of "post-partisanship." And what president doesn't love overwhelming majorities when the votes are counted in Congress?
Or, the Republicans could hold their line and decide not to support Obama's plan no matter what. Obama -- if he handles this correctly -- still comes out smelling like a rose. He can get on television and say: "I bent over backward trying to get Republicans onboard. I extended my hand, but they would not take it. They were more interested in playing politics than in passing a bill which will save the American economy. I would truly have liked this to be a bipartisan bill, but we have no time to waste, and quite frankly we have the votes to pass this without the Republicans' help. America's economy is too important to play these petty games, so Democrats will pass this bill with or without the Republicans' help."
Of course, to do that, Obama would have to jettison his hopes of overwhelming bipartisan support. But he may have to. The real question is: will he? And, if so, when? How much bargaining is he going to do before he throws up his hands and says "Enough!"? We will see the answer to this soon (in the next week, most likely).
President Obama faces a real test with this issue. His ideals are to overcome the partisan games in Washington, but that may be too much to ask, especially in his first major legislation. When this becomes obvious to all, will he step up to the plate and pass what needs to be passed on a party-line vote, or will he jettison instead the ideals outlined in the bill as it stands (and give the Republicans everything they want)?
One thing missing in this debate is the Democratic spin on things. Republican congressional leaders have been all over the news banging their drum, and there is a curious silence from the Democratic side. They need to pick a point man or woman on the issue, and unleash them to make the Democratic case. So far, they haven't been very successful in doing so.
Perhaps it is time for Barack Obama to flex his bully pulpit (so to speak). If Obama went out to the heartland and gave a speech or two on why it was crucial to pass his stimulus, perhaps that would be the best way of redefining the debate.
I was struck by this while watching John McCain get interviewed over the weekend. McCain said he could not support the bill as written because it had too much pork in it. One of the examples he gave was six billion dollars for broadband in rural areas. How easy would it be to find a Native American on a reservation in Arizona, and ask: "Senator McCain, why can't you support broadband access so that this man can access the internet?" Personify the debate, in other words.
If Obama gave one speech full of examples like this to counter the Republican noise, it would go a long way towards painting Republicans into a corner. President Obama currently enjoys sky-high approval ratings, and he needs to show that this political capital is a dangerous thing for Republicans to oppose. The best way to do that is, as Ronald Reagan was famous for doing, to "take the argument over the heads of the media, and talk straight to the people."
So while Obama's first week in office was a pretty productive one, to make his next week even more impressive he should plainly tell Americans to call up their congressmen in support of his plan. Because Republicans might think twice about opposing the stimulus, if their phones started ringing off the hook from angry constituents.
-- Chris Weigant