Thoughts while watching the president take questions at the Senate Democrats' meeting at the Newseum:
- Congress is a co-equal branch of government, but the staging of the event made the senators look like out-to-lunch business students listening to a George Clooney lecture in Up in the Air. And, of course, the subtext might be the same: "Get over it, you people in the crowd out there, you're losing your jobs!"
- President Obama wants to "save and create" jobs, but here he is trying to take away one of mine by telling the senators to ignore cable TV! Also, I am confused. Isn't cable TV providing blanket coverage of this very event? Isn't that why everyone is in the room?
- It's amusing to watch the president paint himself into a rhetorical corner. It doesn't happen often. But these days he is trying to make a virtue of a point he was loath to admit during the 2008 campaign: that Bill Clinton had done a good job. In fact, Bubba was the most successful fiscal steward in modern Democratic Party history—the source, Obama now admits, of whatever credibility Democrats can claim on issues of the debt and deficit.
- Obama was a senator, but it seems hard for him to hide what I have reason to know is his rather dismissive attitude toward the Congress in general and the Senate in particular. He wasn't in the Senate for long (he was more of a stone skipping across the water), and, in any case, he's too assertive to sit still for all of the curlicues, locutions, and procedural maneuverings they love on the Hill.
- Remember George W. Bush? I do. It is impossible to imagine him with the knowledge, skill, or confidence to do what Obama does effortlessly: answer a question. Obama's growing mastery of the details of government is impressive, and clearly the president himself is impressed with what he has learned. The danger is that he has concluded that, given all that he knows, that only his hands-on involvement, in public and private, can make things happen. The risk in that is that everyone else in town—on the Hill and in his own administration—will stand around while he takes all the shots.
- The president is underestimating—or missing the point about—what the "average voter" (his term) knows about the federal budget. He keeps saying that the "average voter" thinks that most of the budget is composed of "foreign aid" and "earmarks." I'd like to know what recent poll he is talking about. As soon as the White House answers my query I'll let you know. In the meantime, recent polls do show that most "average voters" think that the stimulus bill (a.k.a. the Recovery Act) was mostly an $800 billion waste of money. They also think the $60 billion spent on the bailout of the auto industry was a waste of money. And they are highly dubious of the value of the $1.5 trillion TARP program, even though much of that money has been or will be repaid. And they are profoundly worried about long-term debt—a voter concern that Obama himself cites.
- Obama really isn't an "ideologue" in the sense that he has a dogma he is following—a sacred text, whether it is (to use a shorthand) Burke-Rand or FDR-Steinbeck. But what he doesn't quite get—or want to get—is that, to genuine conservatives, his expansive view of his own duty is itself ideological: an ideology that places government at the center of the social universe. Not enough of these folks are able to admit that George W. Bush was not a conservative, but now they want to correct for their silence by becoming hysterical about the current president. The danger for Obama is that these conservatives are making a strong case to moderate Republicans and independents to join their revolt.
- Obama can't assume that what he sees as the self-evident virtues of government intervention—that it saved us from a second Depression—is evident to all. And even if it were, he has to sell the virtues of government all over again, and in a tough climate.