Hirsh: How Obama Lost Control of the Agenda

Barack Obama began making his comeback Wednesday, apparently aware that he has all but lost control of the agenda in Washington at a time when he simply can't afford to do so. Obama's biggest problem isn't Taxgate—which resulted in the Terrible Tuesday departure of his trusted friend, Tom Daschle, and the defanging of his Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner. Nor is the No. 1 problem that the president can't seem to win a single Republican vote for his stimulus package. That's a symptom, not a cause. The reason Obama is getting so few votes is that he is no longer setting the terms of the debate over how to save the economy. Instead the Republican Party—the one we thought lost the election—is doing that. And the confusion and delay this is causing could realize Obama's worst fears, turning "crisis into a catastrophe," as the president said Wednesday.

Obama's desire to begin a "post-partisan" era may have backfired. In his eagerness to accommodate Republicans and listen to their ideas over the past week, he has allowed the GOP to turn the haggling over the stimulus package into a decidedly stale, Republican-style debate over pork, waste and overspending. This makes very little economic sense when you are in a major recession that only gets worse day by day. Yes, there are still some very legitimate issues with a bill that's supposed to be "temporary" and "targeted"—among them, large increases in permanent entitlement spending, and a paucity of tax cuts that will prompt immediate spending. Even so, Obama has allowed Congress to grow embroiled in nitpicking over efficiency when the central debate should be about whether the package is big enough. When you are dealing with a stimulus of this size, there are going to be wasteful expenditures and boondoggles. There's no way anyone can spend $800 to $900 billion quickly without waste and boondoggles. It comes with the Keynesian territory. This is an emergency; the normal rules do not apply.

But the public isn't hearing about that all-important distinction right now. And by the time Obama signs a bill—if he can get one approved—many Americans may have concluded that the GOP is right and that the Democrats have embarked on another spending spree, as if this were just another wearying Washington debate. Judging from his flurry of TV appearances Tuesday night and his remarks Wednesday, Obama himself seems to have realized belatedly that he needs to stop empathizing and take charge. After trying to put the Daschle imbroglio behind him by frankly acknowledging that he, the president, "screwed up," Obama reminded everyone of the urgency of the moment. "A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future," he said at the White House. Obama also sought to regain the moral high ground by announcing he would limit senior executive pay at bailed-out Wall Street firms to $500,000. "We're taking the air out of the golden parachute," Obama said, adding that it was only "the beginning of a long-term effort to examine the ways in which the means and manner of executive compensation contributed to a reckless culture …" That's a step in the right direction. But now Obama needs to remind the American people that unless the Republicans get on board, they will bear political responsibility for failing to act in the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Proof that that Team Obama and his party are losing the debate can be found in a new poll out Wednesday. The Rasmussen Reports survey found that, even though Obama still has a very high approval rating, only 37 percent of Americans now favor the stimulus legislation, compared to 45 percent two weeks ago. The results were similar to a recent Gallup survey that found just 38 percent of voters now support the recovery plan. Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate minority leader, hinted Wednesday that Obama has lost control of his own Congress. "The president has tried to set some priorities. Unfortunately, Democrats just keep throwing more money on top of an already bloated bill," McConnell said on the floor.

The decisive issue here is leadership. The lack of it is what is plaguing the Obama administration. Every war needs a successful general, and this administration doesn't have one yet. Geithner is still wounded by his soul-scourging confirmation vote (he was the first tax controversy of course, barely escaping on a 60-34 vote; had his vote come after the Daschle news, it's likely that Geithner would be the one leaving town today). On Wednesday the taciturn new Treasury secretary delivered all-too-brief remarks at a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying he was working to "help lay the foundation for long-term recovery, [develop] a comprehensive plan to help get credit flowing again and address the housing crisis." Sounds great, but Geithner is apparently going to wait until next week to announce a lot of this, and that seems a long way off. (Monday is President's Day, which became Obama's informal deadline for passage of the stimulus package after he backed off his original hopes of having something to sign inauguration week.)

In the interim, no one else has dominated the newscasts. National Economic Council chief Larry Summers, by every account a brilliant economist and policymaker, has mainly worked behind the scenes. Paul Volcker finally spoke out Wednesday, but mainly to provide a postmortem on last fall's crash. And it's still not clear what the new body he heads, the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, even does. And White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel appears shell-shocked by Taxgate and other defeats. An administration that two weeks ago set out to change the world, having claimed the first Democratic majority victory in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter, now looks like it's engaged in a Pickett's Charge—without the benefit of being led by Pickett. Meanwhile, the Senate Dems took off part of Wednesday for a "retreat."

This is all too leisurely. Speed is of the essence now. No one understands this better than Geithner, whose formative experience as a young Treasury official in Tokyo came in watching Japanese authorities dither and muddle about for a decade after their own giant bubble of an economy collapsed in 1989. "Monetary policy was very slow to respond,"Geithner told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. "Fiscal policy was very tentative and then did a lot of zigzagging." He's right. Like Geithner, I was working in Tokyo at the time (as a journalist) and watched every one of those zigs and zags. The answer then, as now, was bold leadership. The Japanese didn't supply it, and they still haven't fully recovered. What's the point of historical lessons if you don't learn from them?