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Posted by on Feb 4, 2009 in Economy, Politics | 21 comments

Is Obama In Danger Of Losing His “Change” And Competence Images?

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Could political toe-stubbing on the part of President Barack Obama’s team seriously undermine his image as an agent of “change” and as a cool, competent operator just two weeks after Obama took the oath off office?

Even asking the question seems to suggest mental hyperactivity — just TWO WEEKS? — but it is a valid one. Many hoped Obama would prove to be “another” FDR, or JFK, or Ronald Reagan of the center/center-left. Others feared or charged that he could turn out to be another Jimmy Carter (inept) or Bill Clinton (a good speaker who’d be politically under fire and stalemated so much of his rhetoric didn’t translate into reality).

And, yes, it is too soon to tell — but it’s not too soon to acknowledge that there are some troubling signs.

The issue isn’t just the claims that Obama is just another hack politician that are coming from conservative talk show hosts, Republican activists or GOP new or old media pundits. They have been essentially claiming that before he even rested his fanny on his seat in the Oval Office and their whole mantra is to pick something, rage about it, and broaden it to go after anyone with a “D” on their party affiliation. These are the 24/7 partisans.

Obama’s bigger problem will be with other voters and pundits. It is indeed too early to tell — TWO WEEKS — but the question is whether Americans are now is seeing the inklings of what could be a competency issue, the “same ‘ol same ‘ol” kind of political administration, and whether team Obama is now showing signs that they will be politically outfoxed and boxed in by their opponents for the next four years.

Just look at a few of these untidy strands now visible as they blow in the political breeze:

1. Obama’s problems with vetting of three proposed cabinet officials. Former Majority Leader Tom Daschle was one of Obama’s closest advisers as Obama entered the primaries and ran for President. His tax problem raised the issue of a) how tough (or untough) team Obama vetting was.

Do Obama’s advisers think “vetting” is taking your pet to the doctor?

Additionally, longtime political pro Daschle clearly knew about the Obama message of changing from the Old Washington. Did he take this message seriously? If he did, how could he let himself in for a fall and let his candidate down?

2. Obama’s electoral victory and polling numbers show no signs yet of translating into FDR-like clout. As of today, it seems as if the most accurate way to find out what might happen is to follow the rantings of Rush Limbaugh rather than the prediction of White House insiders. When Rush talks, the Republican party apparently now follows. And, apparently, what he says the party should do and the party does, Democrats cannot prevent. Republicans have clearly now rebounded in terms of political clout and defiance. If there was a new era with a new tone, it seemed to have lasted about a day.

Or less.


The Washington Post reports
that Democrats in the Senate at this point don’t have the votes to pass the stimulus plan. Just weeks ago pundits offhandedly would write how the administration could get a plan through — no matter what.

And despite a seeming mutual admiration society that had conservative talkers all but calling him a traitor to the Republican party and to civilization as we know it, defeated 2008 GOP Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has now made it clear that despite the highly public Obama-McCain political lovefests, he is not just planning to vote against the stimulus plan but is actively working to defeat the current one. He even sent out an email to his supporters.

3. Obama knows how to use the bully pulpit but is he using it yet and does he know how to bring it all together as President? Despite his eloquence, smart use of You Tube, and mastery of television if the TWO WEEKS (we need to capitalize it) is any indication, Obama does not yet seem to be proving to be a dominant political force who opponents need to fear.

4. Obama and his associates rightfully earned a reputation of knowing how to eschew drama and coolly focus on the mechanics of what was needed to win primaries and an election. But George Bush and Karl Rove knew how to win elections, too. The Bush team proved to be hideously lacking in several areas when it came to governance and competence. Do Obama and his associates have the skills to outsmart their opponents and create coalitions to get their agenda through Congress — and the skills to govern well and competently?

The key to Obama’s immediate clout will be his upcoming polling numbers.

If his job approval starts to seriously tumble this early in his term – TWO WEEKS into it — there will be no reason for his political foes within his party (the Democratic party’s progressives who aren’t happy about his verbal overtures to Republicans or picks of GOPers for key roles in his administration) or outside of it (not just hard-core conservative Republicans but the hybrid Republicans such as McCain and the few moderate Republicans left) to fear him or go along with him. Talks at the White House, in the halls of Congress or at cocktail parties won’t be enough.

The Christian Science Monitor frames it this way:

Two weeks ago, President Obama took office pledging a “new era of responsibility” in Washington.On Tuesday, two choices for top administration posts withdrew their names from consideration because of personal tax violations, saying they did not want to distract from the president’s agenda.

Tom Daschle, nominated to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services and as White House health reform “czar,” succumbed to a growing firestorm over his admission that he owed more than $128,000 in delinquent taxes for the use of a private car and driver provided by a wealthy businessman and political activist.

Just hours earlier, Nancy Killefer, Mr. Obama’s appointee for a new position – chief White House performance officer – announced she was stepping down, acknowledging a failure to pay employment taxes on household help for 1-1/2 years.

The one-two punch brought to a head the growing embarrassment to the Obama administration over ethics challenges faced by a number of nominees, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who withdrew his name previously as Commerce secretary nominee over pay-to-play allegations, and Timothy Geithner, who survived his own tax flap – more than $30,000 in back taxes owed – to become Treasury secretary.

The series of tainted nominees raises questions about the Obama administration’s vetting process, and leaves the new president reeling as he tries to get Congress to pass the biggest economic stimulus package in history.

All of this impacts clout: if the President is seen as reeling and painfully clutching his stubbed toe, then he may find himself being bucked by not just GOPers but some within his own party who see no reason to fear him because they won’t believe there are any political consequences. The Monitor again:

“Obama has work to do to restore his image as an agent of change,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “A more proactive approach will be needed by Obama if he wants to keep transparency and change as a centerpiece of his administration. If these are the kinds of connections Obama was willing to tolerate, he needs to do some work to overcome the damage.”

Yet another sign that TWO WEEKS into his term the first impression Obama made to voters about him as a candidate isn’t the same as the first impression Obama is giving as President comes from this column by the New York Time’s Maureen Dowd, who rakes the new President over the coals for several things such as:

It took Daschle’s resignation to shake the president out of his arrogant attitude that his charmed circle doesn’t have to abide by the lofty standards he lectured the rest of us about for two years.

Before he recanted, his hand forced by a cascade of appointees who “forgot” to pay taxes, his reasoning was creeping perilously close to that of the outgoing leaders he denounced in his Inaugural Address: that elitist mentality of “we know best,” we know we’re doing the “right” thing for the country, so we can twist the rules.

Dowd also seems dumbfounded by Obama’s now-clear mistake to let the stimulus package go to Congress in its initial forms, with some items in it that have played right into the hands of GOPers who have argued that the Democrats could not be trusted and would spend like drunken CEOS — CEOS spend more than sailors, so let’s change the metaphor in the 21st century.

Mr. Obama should have taken a red pencil to the $819 billion stimulus bill and slashed all the provisions that looked like caricatures of Democratic drunken-sailor spending.

As Senator Kit Bond, a Republican, put it, there were so many good targets that he felt “like a mosquito in a nudist colony.” He was especially worried about the provision requiring the steel and iron for infrastructure construction to be American-made, and by the time the chastened president talked to Chris Wallace on Fox Tuesday, he agreed that “we can’t send a protectionist message.”

Mr. Obama protested to Brian Williams that the programs denounced as “wasteful” by Republicans “amount to less than 1 percent of the entire package.” All the more reason to cut them and create a lean, clean bill tailored to creating job.

And, indeed, the question is there: if he is the kind of leader many voters assumed he would be, why was the bill allowed to go up to the Hill in its initial form — all but handing over to talk show hosts, all-Democrats-are-evil Republican polemicists, and other critics political ammunition…wrapped in a nice box…with a bow on it…and a gift card?

Wasn’t White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel supposed to be a strategically smart political operative who’d guide Obama and run rings around those who tried to thwart the administration’s agenda?

She also writes:

The Democratic president has been spending so much time trying — and failing — to win over Republicans that he may not have noticed the disillusionment in his own ranks.

The bottom line?

On several fronts, Obama needs to make it clear — and perceptibly evident — that when he talks about “change” he isn’t talking about something people throw into a jar at the end of the day at home and cash in at the local grocery store.

TWO WEEKS into his term, the question remains: is Obama the political powerhouse many Americans saw (and some feared) he would be?

Can he govern as well as he campaigned?

We may have a better idea…TWO WEEKS from now…

Copyrighted cartoon by Adam Zyglis, The Buffalo News. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

UPDATE: Read Andrew Malcolm’s MUST READ on Obama’s toe-stubs and change. REQUIRED READING…