In Retrospect, Not Such a Bad Start for Obama

In Retrospect, Not Such a Bad Start for Obama

By Ruth Marcus - February 11, 2009

WASHINGTON -- To everyone out there despairing -- or rejoicing -- about the Obama administration's supposedly rocky start: Settle down. It's actually going rather well.

Sure, President Obama had a lousy week. A week is not a presidency. He blundered with the selection, and withdrawal, of Tom Daschle to spearhead his health care reform effort. Indeed, the self-inflicted Daschle damage is twofold: In the short term, and along with other problematic nominees, to Obama's claim to signal change from Washington business as usual; in the longer term, to steering health reform through Congress.

And certainly, there were problems with the rollout of his stimulus package. The administration ceded too much control over the contents to House Democrats, although it was nowhere near as hands-off as has been portrayed. It was entirely foreseeable that Republicans would cherry-pick individual elements for ridicule; the administration excised some of them but failed to do enough to anticipate the outsized problems that remaining items would cause. The president, until rebooting this week with travel and a prime-time news conference, lost control of the message to Republicans, who were only too happy to seize it.

But it is difficult to assemble a measure of this magnitude -- this audacity, even -- once you've settled into office. It's nearly impossible to do it from the outside or on the way in the door, without functioning e-mail or phones. Expecting the Obama team to operate perfectly under these conditions is like expecting a first-year med student to perform surgery -- before they've handed out the stethoscopes.

Consider, also, what the administration has accomplished so far. Before he took office, Obama played a key role in obtaining congressional approval for the second round of bank bailout funding, clearing from his plate a major problem that would otherwise have awaited his arrival.

By the end of his first two weeks in office, the president signed into law two major pieces of legislation -- on pay discrimination and children's health care.

By the end of his first month, he will, in all likelihood, have overseen enactment of a stimulus bill that will be about the size, with about the mix of new spending and tax cuts, of what he originally proposed.

Remember, at this point in Bill Clinton's presidency, he was still more than two months away from losing his effort to pass a stimulus measure. Its price tag? $16 billion.

At this point in George W. Bush's presidency, he was being lauded for his bipartisan outreach. Although "it is too early to say whether the charm will be successful ... ," The Washington Post editorial page observed, "the tone of President Bush's first fortnight deserves a warm welcome."

Both snapshots offer a set of useful reminders. First, the shape of a presidency cannot be discerned from its first few weeks. Clinton's was more successful, if not that much more disciplined, than its wobbly beginning would suggest; Bush's was more disastrous and divisive than could have been imagined from that warm and fuzzy start.

Second, every president discovers anew that achieving results in Washington is a lot harder than promising them on the campaign trail. Only if you expected to wake up the day after the inauguration and see unicorns prancing across the National Mall should you be particularly surprised at the current state of play.

Being slapped in the face by House Republicans, and most of their Senate colleagues as well, may be unpleasant, but it does not signal the failure of bipartisanship. As a political matter, Obama is better off having Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist by his side, as he did in Fort Myers Tuesday, than House Republicans.

Third, the conventional wisdom tends to exaggerate both failure and success. The Obama campaign was flailing before it was brilliant. In fact, both these assessments were overstated. So, too, with the start of the Obama presidency. As Obama adviser David Axelrod said on the way to Indiana on Monday, "If I had listened to the conversation in Washington during the campaign for president, I would have jumped off a building about a year and a half ago."

So if you're feeling jittery about Obama's start, ask yourself this: Is there another president in recent memory who would have done better?

Ruth Marcus

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