Taming the Party Animals

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Illustration for article titled Taming the Party Animals

If you’re a through-and-through progressive, or maybe even the Speaker of the House, and you’re still counting on a far-left agenda from President Obama, you should think again. 

If you’re part of the Republican leadership, or a maybe a rank-and-file Rush Limbaugh “Dittohead,” waiting for Obama to enact a flurry of “socialist” regulations on the way to confiscating your grandfather’s blunderbuss and scheduling regular Friday night poker with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, you might want to pump your brakes. 

Prepare to be disappointed because Obama’s not falling for the banana in the tailpipe

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Less than a month into the Obama presidency, the net result of two weeks’ worth of ruckus over the president’s economic stimulus legislation, now poised to gain final passage in Congress, is that both liberals and conservatives in Washington have telegraphed their respective playbooks. And the beneficiary is Obama, who maintains a reservoir of goodwill with the American people and may now have the political cover he needs to break for the pragmatic center. 

For the moment at least, congressional Republicans still appear to be deluded by their own talking points from the 2008 campaign: presenting Obama as a radical dilettante packaged in a Brooks Brothers suit. Even most mainstream conservatives no longer see him this way, and by defaulting to rejectionism so early, they've probably exposed themselves as being a little resentful of Obama’s success. And they may have branded themselves as the exact opposite of “bipartisan”—not a posture they can really afford if they plan to take on a president at the top of his game. 

Obama’s handling of the stimulus debate has played out much like his dismantling of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy almost a year ago. In both instances Obama patiently absorbed as many rhetorical blows as he could from Republicans before taking his message directly to the public, laying out his case thoroughly and leaving his detractors without a response.  

The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber describes it as a classic rope-a-dope, and the New York Times’ Bob Herbert calls him as a chess master, but perhaps it’s more accurate to think of Obama’s approach as political Tai Chi. Obama’s first moves often appear overly conciliatory, if not downright passive, but he eventually finds a way to use his opponents’ forward momentum against them. By the time they figure out what’s going on, they can’t hold themselves back. 

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Meanwhile, with the stimulus, Obama’s Democratic House “allies” prematurely shot their wad by tacking on a hodge-podge of spending programs that average Americans didn’t really ask for, mistaking Obama’s enthusiasm for the bill as a vehicle to reinvigorate the New Deal/Great Society agenda. 

The political class seems not to have absorbed what the electorate has already figured out: The election of the first black president was groundbreaking, but in one sense, Obama’s election was utterly counterrevolutionary to the degree that he embraces all of the conventional trappings of the American dream, seeking only to expand it to new segments of society, not to confront or alter its component parts. 

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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. 

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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. 

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They can’t compete with Obama, and maybe they shouldn’t even try.

David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter

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