In medieval Washington, no one gets a half-hour solo meeting with a president. But as Barack Obama labored to sell his economic plan last week, he gave three senators, none a household name, the royal treatment. "When I got the call, I was pretty amazed," says Susan Collins, a Republican moderate from Maine. "It was just the two of us, no aides … That's unheard of."
After chatting about Oval Office décor, they got down to business. Obama understood her concern: the stimulus bill, as it stood, was too costly and too diffuse. He agreed on some specific cuts and vowed to work for others. So, in the meantime, could he count on her to vote for a minimum of $800 billion? In flinty-eyed Maine, she said, there just were too many doubts about the price tag. "He didn't convince me," Collins told me later.
To aficionados of Beltway ball, the new president's private meetings were revealing: he was elevating relatively junior players, and, perhaps, relying too much on a congressional gang of bipartisan centrists at the risk of alienating his own party. They were one sign, the Beltway types thought, that his "outside" game (campaign-style speechmaking) was still better than his "inside" game (the process of muscling through the crowded paint of institutional power). But late last week, it appeared that they'd underestimated the president. A group of bipartisan senators had reportedly come to terms on a stimulus bill. At about $780 billion, Collins seemed convinced.
Like all new presidents, Obama is learning how to make friends—and how to adjust the microphone of the bully pulpit. For one thing, it's extremely sensitive. When the president suggested, in passing, that Republicans stop listening to Rush Limbaugh, the result was to make the radio talk-show host even more influential in GOP ranks. It also takes time to know when, and how often, to commandeer airtime. Three weeks into his presidency, Obama already seems overexposed in the capital —and that was before a prime-time press conference scheduled for this week. The decision to do back-to-back interviews with TV anchors turned into a noble but almost self-flagellatory exercise as he spent much of the time apologizing for vetting mistakes.
Dealing with Congress is even trickier, even if it's "run" by your own party. He doesn't really know the place—he barely had a cup of coffee before launching his presidential bid—and has had trouble deciding whether to treat the members as equals or as incorrigible children. The former approach (with a little scolding thrown in for good measure) seems to have worked.
New presidents naturally want to correct for their predecessor's weaknesses. It's what they run on. George W. Bush feared and loathed the press; Obama likes to show off his ease in dealing with it. Bush disdained dealing with Congress directly; Obama is sending the opposite message, attending lunches and retreats as if he's one of the guys. Bush refused to apologize or second-guess himself; Obama said "I screwed up"—or words to that effect—on five networks.
The good news for Obama is that his congressional colleagues care about one thing only, winning, and some version of a stimulus package almost surely will be signed into law eventually. The White House has realized that the best use of Obama's time now is firing up voters as he did during the campaign; they, in turn, can demand that members of Congress (private meeting with the president or no) enact his agenda. Obama will hit the road this week to sell his plan. As a basketball player in high school, he was known for a confident outside shot. But it seems that he's got more than one way to score.