Over almost two years, I’ve learned not to underestimate Barack Obama or assume reflexively that if he’s not following my idea of the best way to proceed that he hasn’t thought up a much better one I hadn’t considered. But it does look to me like he’s ceding the initiative to Congress, which is odd since he’s immensely popular and Congress is wildly unpopular.
Let’s review the stakes. If Obama can pass a big, well-thought-out and clean stimulus bill in the first weeks of his administration, he will have already placed a deep imprint on the course of American politics for years and even decades into the future. If he doesn’t, if it starts dragging out, not only will that not happen, which is bad in itself. But he’ll also signal to a lot of people that he can be stymied even at the height of his power.
Now, before you write in, yes, it’s a bit premature to be overly critical of Obama’s legislative strategy two weeks before he has a presidency to strategize with. I grant you that. But the original idea was to sign the bill on inauguration day, which would have required having a bill already moving through Congress today. Now the marker is being place around mid-February. And that’s being viewed as an ambitious schedule.
What’s more, just watching things get under way over the last few days, there’s a lot of congressional muscle flexing, institutional muscle flexing, you might say, which is understandable considering the doormat the Congress became under President Bush. But I hear a lot of chairpersons and leaders talking about running this bill through a lengthy legislative process, lots of amendments, which undoubtedly means lots of horse trading, and so on.
There are a lot of reasons President Obama doesn’t want to be like President Bush, who repeatedly bum-rushed the Congress into passing his legislation by ramping up hysteria over manufactured crises. But the current situation actually happens to be a genuine crisis, which must count for something. And even though the stabilization of the stock market has calmed political tensions a fair amount, there’s a lot of economic data out there suggesting we’re still in the midst of a profound economic crisis.
Presidents have key windows of opportunity. And this is one of them, perhaps a defining one. So I’m surprised to see so relatively little effort to take the initiative more forcefully with Congress, let alone the greatly diminished political opposition, since left to itself the legislative branch will naturally revert to standard operating procedures I’m not sure we can really afford at the moment.
Now, perhaps they’re being much cannier than I realize, working out of the camera’s gaze to get the Hill kingpins invested in this legislation and do the heavy lifting for him rather than taking a more visibly forceful approach. I hope that’s true and part of me thinks it may be since they’re no fools. But, alas, hope is not a plan.
Late Update: One other point. To get a sense of the my implicit pessimism about the stimulus bill we’re going to get, read Paul Krugman’s recent posts on the topic.