Democrats in Congress would help themselves if they stopped looking at Obama as a type “O” blood transfusion to revive the days of the permanent Democratic majority. But instead he’s a hands-on trustee who’s been brought in to make the best of a really bad situation—a fixer like Winston Wolf, more Al Gore than Al Sharpton, part Teddy Roosevelt and part Teddy Pendergrass.
Obama’s strategy, with White House Super Bowl parties and his “No, I’ll come to you” Capitol Hill sales call diplomacy, has given him an opportunity to preach to skeptics and antagonists right to their faces while appearing more reflective and magnanimous than they do. For Congress, the national press corps and a television audience accustomed to George W. Bush’s incomplete, muddled and sophomorically brief utterances, Obama’s Monday presser was a little like The Fonz stepping in for Richie Cunningham. When he answered reporters’ questions this week, going on at length about his vision for economic recovery and restoring American leadership abroad, he made just enough eye contact and put just enough bass in his voice to remind everyone who’s in charge.
Speaking Thursday on the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Obama skewered retreating cabinet nominee Sen. Judd Gregg by wondering aloud if in his early years, Lincoln waited around “wondering if somebody might call him up and ask him to be commerce secretary.”
The challenge going forward for the Obama administration will be the soundness of the policy choices that it makes. Once executed, if the stimulus package does not at least begin to remedy the shortage of available lending, rising unemployment and flagging consumer confidence, then Democrats and Obama will be facing stronger electoral resistance in 2010 and 2012. But in terms of the war of perception being fought over who is more in tune with the aspirations of the American people, Congress—on both sides of the aisle—is overmatched.
They can’t compete with Obama, and maybe they shouldn’t even try.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.