Fineman: Obama's Bumpy January

The rhythms of January are all wrong: too much time before the main events, which engenders needless, destructive name-calling. Look at the ridiculously long run-up to the national championship college football game. Players from the universities of Oklahoma and Florida have had way too much time on their hands, nearly a month since the end of the season. They have spent it dissing each other. Bad form.

Far more serious is what's going on in Washington. The world is falling apart, and we're still waiting for the dawn of Barack Obama. It seems to be taking an eternity. President George Bush is doing his best to "stretch," as they say in TV studios, filling his schedule with meaningless events, protecting vast stretches of distant seabeds, rebonding with deposed foreign leaders who were part of his now defunct Spread Democracy club. He even invited in the former presidents, including his own father, for a lunch with Obama.

You can imagine Ol' H.W. glancing at his wristwatch.

They all offered advice to Obama. Word is that the president-elect listened carefully, and promised to call them often—which would, in a way, make him a more dutiful son of Bush the elder than Bush the younger ever was. If the latter had asked the former in the fall of 2002 about invading Iraq, Dad would have said, "Son, don't do it. It wouldn't be prudent. Brent tells me it'll be an unholy mess if we go in."

And history would be different.

But we have the history we have, and rather than give Obama a clean, quick coronation to try to begin writing a new and better chapter, Washington (and especially his own party) seems intent on giving the president-elect as much trouble as possible while waiting for him to take the oath of office on Jan. 20.

You might expect Republicans to be uncooperative. But, except for refusing to accept the advent of Al Franken as a senator from Minnesota, they have been relatively quiet—knowing, perhaps, that it is folly to attack a guy who won on "HOPE" and who enjoys sky-high approval ratings and the good wishes of the world.

No, it is the Democrats who are giving Obama pre-inaugural fits. And that is not surprising, of course, for they are Democrats. And it must be said that Obama himself hasn't played his January hand all that well.

Obama's new year began with the news that Gov. Bill Richardson was un-nominating himself for Commerce Secretary. Turned out he needed the time to deal with a federal investigation of his administration's contracting practices in New Mexico—an investigation Obama's team should have known about, and been concerned about, from reading the local newspapers. Now Hispanic Democrats are jockeying over who among them should be tapped to take the post.

Then there's Roland Burris. Obama made it clear that he didn't want the kindly but inconsequential Illinois politician to be his U.S. Senate replacement, because Burris had been chosen by the allegedly corrupt and recently arrested Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But Burris would not go quietly, and he has turned his week into a farce that obliterated what little majesty there might have been in the opening of the 111th Congress. More important, it looks like Democratic leaders (like "martial music," an oxymoron) are going to cave, and seat Burris anyway after several days of standing in the schoolhouse door.

They look dumb and Obama looks weak. Not a good pregame warmup.

Next, look at Obama's soon-to-be-announced nomination of Leon Panetta to head the CIA. To hear the spooks tell it, this is a little like asking Mr. Rogers to run an L.A. gang: he knows a neighborhood, just not that one. Obama & Co. wanted someone free of torture taint, but wound up with a guy who, as Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, didn't have enough gumshoe in him to suss out the role of Monica Lewinsky.

The Democratic committee chairs were not amused, especially when they weren't consulted; they weren't because they would have objected, which they did after they got the news (as often happens) from Andrea Mitchell.

As payback for being ignored, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, became the first Democrat to support the seating of Roland Burris! Take that, Mr. President-elect.

Meanwhile, Democrats already are disagreeing over policy. I've talked to some on the Hill (devoted readers of Paul Krugman) who don't particularly like Obama's plan to put $300 billion worth of tax cuts into the big save-the-world stimulus package. I know some more conservative Democrats who are warning Sen. Harry Reid, their Senate leader, not to take up the one piece of legislation that labor unions really want, and which they think they have already paid for. It's the "card check" bill that would allow rank-and-file representation elections to be held in public, by signing cards, and not by secret ballot—which, long ago, the unions saw as the enlightened approach to union organizing rights. Reid has not relented, however, and privately is vowing to bring the matter to a vote in the Senate this spring.

Then there are the confirmation hearings. Most expect smooth sailing, but Democrats have made it clear that they will have some tough questions for one of the most pivotal of Obama's nominees, Treasury Secretary-designate Tim Geithner. I know him a bit; he is a calm, rational and self-possessed fellow. He is well liked by the masters-of-the-universe for whom he has worked, Larry Summers chief among them.

But Geithner has been on duty at the New York Fed during some of the most tumultuous and controversial times in the history of finance. Democrats on the Hill are just itching to go after someone, and Geithner may be handy after most of the Republicans skip town as fast as they can on Jan. 20.

George Bush has a seabed they can visit.

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