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February 18, 2009

Repackaged Isnít Change

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In the end, the economic stimulus legislation signed yesterday by President Barack Obama, only garnered a total of three Republican votes from all of Congress, and, while traveling the yellow brick road on the way to Oz, the legislation lost the vast majority of public support.


So what happened and where do we go from here?


Of course, one of the immediate lessons to be learned by President Obama’s trip to Oz is that in spite of how critical the stimulus legislation was to his political future – and the future of our nation – he left much of the work in developing and shepherding the legislation through the halls of Congress to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., CA) and Senate President Harry Reid (D., NV).


These two august members of the old political crust of Washington and their minions are the same old tired political hacks that participated in causing the economic crisis and the rise of hardboiled political partisanship, which Mr. Obama railed against in his campaign.


Indeed, in spite of a honeymoon of storybook proportions, the unapologetic support of the major news media outlets, and an economic crisis of historic proportions, 62 percent of the public was against releasing the second half of the TARP funds ($350 billion authorized last October) and only 38 percent supported the 2009 stimulus package.


A recent Weekly Standard article by Gary Andres said it best: “Facing his first governing challenge – passing a large spending stimulus bill – the new president hit some turbulence after takeoff. The bill won no Republican support in the House, and the Senate balked at the House version and changed it…


“With the prospects for broad bipartisan agreement a thing of the past, President Obama fell back into campaign mode to meet these new realities.


“Last week he met with House Democrats and excited them with rip-roaring, campaign-style oratory. This week he continued the road show with stops in Indiana and Florida, warning of ‘catastrophe’ without immediate action. He also did a prime time press conference aimed at winning public support.”


To be certain, “going over the head of Congress” and directly appealing for public support is nothing new and provides the foundation of the much-vaunted grassroots approach of the Obama campaign machine in his quest for the Oval Office.


However, Mr. Andres framed a current discussion of the evolving presidency of Mr. Obama best with the context: “Campaigns are generous forums. They allow politicians to make claims difficult to refute. Only the most coldhearted could oppose more hope, change, and bipartisanship…”


Mr. Andres quipped: “Great. Where do I sign up? President Obama thrived in that environment during the 2008 election. His electoral promises thrilled, energized and inspired millions of Americans, and opened the doors to the White House…”


However, after all the hype and romanticization of a groveling sycophant media, here comes the “there – there.” Again, we go back to Mr. Andres’ words: “But governing is less charitable. In fact, it's brutal and messy. It requires trade-offs, hard decisions, picking winners and losers. This is the predictable lesson of President Obama's first few weeks in office.”


It belies the fact that there are a number of hard lessons for the president to learn.


Certainly the immediate conundrum for President Obama is whether he can get past his seemingly personal predisposition for arrogance instead of self-assured confidence and learning the hard lessons of governing in the context in which he serves.


In last fall’s election Mr. Obama won 53 percent of the vote. As much as two or three percentage points may be attributed to his huge financial advantage over his opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain.


However, if that were not enough to put him over the top, as much as five to 10 percentage points were not necessarily votes for Mr. Obama as much as they were votes against the presidency of George W. Bush, the war in Iraq and total dismay over the economy.


A recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Steven Hayward explained that Mr. Obama, widely touted as the Democrat response to President Ronald Reagan, would be wise to take a page from President Reagan’s approach to governance.


“Mr. Obama and his team would be well advised to put aside the imperious FDR model and study Ronald Reagan's first 200 days in office. The contrast is instructive.


“Upon entering office in 1981, Reagan's team produced a 50-page, detailed blueprint for their first six months in office. The passage of their economic policy was the central objective…”


The report was called the Initial Actions Project (IAP), and “One of the main themes that (emerged) from the IAP report is that Reagan and his team didn't assume that a landslide victory meant they had a mandate to do whatever they wanted.


“To the contrary, the report's authors, Richard Wirthlin and David Gergen, wrote: ‘The election was not a bestowal of political power, but a stewardship opportunity for us to reconsider and restructure the political agenda for the next two decades. The public has sanctioned the search for a new public philosophy to govern America.’”


Keep this in mind as we move forward to the political legislative challenges of the Obama administration in the not-too-distant future.


So far, the “new public philosophy to govern” by President Obama is to repackage the old – and call it new and hope no one notices the lack of change.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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