Caught In the Act Of Thinking

Mid-tweet in last week's press conference, reporters were already complaining that President Obama wasn't making news. And by the old standards, they were right. Obama didn't drop any bombshells, or rein in his agenda, as so many have been urging, or tee up a YouTube-ready sound bite. The same gasbags who had blasted him for demeaning the presidency by cracking jokes on "The Tonight Show" and drinking a beer at a basketball game (hadn't some favored George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 precisely because he was better "to have a beer with"?) now claim Obama's boring. On Sunday he had to defend himself on "60 Minutes" from the charge that he was "punch drunk" with mirth; by Wednesday, he was derided as too serious and professorial.

If it's the latter, Obama's the cool professor who gets strong student reviews, as he did when he taught at the University of Chicago Law School. A year ago, Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's onetime strategist, compared him to his fellow Illinoisan, Adlai Stevenson, in order to discredit the upstart as an effete intellectual. Penn failed, in part because Obama won't refute the charge by dumbing down his language or playing the plebe (as George H.W. Bush did by eating pork rinds) or otherwise pandering to those with less bandwidth in ways he knows are inauthentic. When Stevenson was running for president in the 1950s, a woman approached him and said, "Governor, you have the support of every thinking American." Stevenson replied, "That's nice, but I need a majority." Obama is less cynical about the public. He seems perfectly content to be caught in the act of thinking in prime time.

In doing so, I'd venture that he was making news in a larger sense. He was signaling that he actually trusts people to stick with him through a complex, long-term argument. This is a radical idea and a helluva bet for an American president.

The whole Obama gamble has been a bit misunderstood. In 2007 Bill Clinton told Charlie Rose that electing Obama would be a "roll of the dice" for voters. Not so much. Despite some slip-ups—especially in taking nearly two months to address the credit crisis—Obama has not proved a risky choice. He looks steady and competent and accomplished. While it was sold poorly, the recovery bill he signed was actually four or five major pieces of legislation in one, and adds up to more public investment than at any time in nearly half a century. It was also the largest tax cut in American history.

But if the public wasn't gambling last fall (John McCain was arguably the riskier choice), the president is now. Obama is tripling down, wagering not just that his recovery plan will work but that he can simultaneously dent three huge problems (not fix, dent) that keep getting worse. He's telling the people exactly what to expect from him for the duration of his presidency. He's insisting that repairing the nation's "foundation" begins right now, in this year's budget. And he's set himself up for failure if he doesn't bring big changes in our new policy trinity of Health, Energy and Education, or what I lamely think of as HEE-HEE (constant repetition being necessary for the priorities to sink in).

HEE-HEE, by the way, is about as funny as an uninsured coronary. It's as hilarious as extortionist sheiks or high-school dropouts. But it's boring only if you're so jaded that a president trying to confront three big, hairy problems strikes you as a fool's errand. It's a snooze only if you just can't be bothered to think about the future of the country and the planet.

Washington isn't bored by Obama; it's dazed and confused by him. I was on Capitol Hill in early March on the day the president's proposed budget came out. It was as though an IED had hit the place. Congressional aides asked each other in amazement, Did you read the thing? (They didn't mean actually read it. Nobody has time to read a big bill beyond the cheat sheets.) Can you believe it? The guy is trying to do what he said he would! This counts as heresy in a capital conditioned to believe that campaign promises are, in Ron Ziegler's immortal argot, "inoperative" on the day after the election. Last week a Democratic senator told me with a mixture of awe and worry that "every time I think he's gonna step on the brake, he hits the gas."

The critique comes in many metaphors. He's overloading the circuits. Putting too much freight on the truck. Biting off more than he can chew. That might be right. It's much easier to stop an idea in Congress than to get it through. Already, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is trying to strip the budget of the $630 billion that Obama set aside for health care. The president's cap-and-trade plan, designed to begin the transition to a green economy, is on life support.

"They're accustomed to incrementalism in this town," says David Axelrod. "Their answer is to muddle through—take the path of least resistance. Their lesson is, 'We're in a tough spot, so let's do less.' But that's wrong in the middle of a recession. History has been clear on that."

The subtext of Axelrod's comments can be found in what his old friend Rahm Emanuel said in January, that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." Of course, the White House won't admit that Obama's chance to bring foundational change depends in part on the crisis continuing. Had Franklin Roosevelt ended the Depression in 1933, it's unlikely he would have been able to regulate Wall Street, expand labor rights and establish Social Security later in his first term.

In the meantime, Obama is following FDR's approach of making early down payments on big ideas. So instead of abandoning cap and trade, for instance, he might push its implementation date forward a few years. We could see him fall short of universal coverage but still fulfill the dream of giving every American the same health-insurance options that a congressman gets.

The perfect, in a bit of White House spin that's reaching the status of cliché, should not be the enemy of the good. And the good, the public good in a serious time, should always be considered news, whether the man delivering it is laughing or lecturing or just trying to change the country.

Caught In the Act Of Thinking | U.S.