Obama's Rookie Mistakes

Barack Obama had hoped to have a $1 trillion economic stimulus bill on the Oval Office desk waiting for his signature on inauguration day.  He had promised that the bill would pay only for projects that were going to stimulate recovery and create new jobs, and that it would exclude lawmakers’ pet projects. But that hope has apparently foundered on the mess the Democrats find themselves in.

Rather than seizing the momentum they should have derived from the November election, the Dems are consumed by melodramas over disputed results, the Blagojevich-Burris spectacle (as well as the Coleman-Franken dispute) and launching the new Congress with a show of political force and unintended farce.

President-elect Obama has kept his cards face-down, eager to conserve his political capital until January 20. He has remained aloof, not taking the time to develop the close relationship with Congress he needs. Lacking direction, the House Dems have split themselves and set a tone that will preclude the bipartisanship Obama frequently praises.

His Thursday speech didn’t fill the leadership gap.  Obama expressed little faith in the market.  To the contrary, he said repeatedly that only government action can bring the economy out of the recession.  And he’s prepared to spend as much as that may take.

Obama also seems content to ignore the dangers of doing too much.  The most important thing, he emphasized, is fast action.  

It’s still more than a week until he becomes President Obama, but the hoped-for stimulus bill has already foundered on Obama’s inexpert approach to Congress and the political equivalent of road rage that now seems to dominate the thinking of leading Democrats.

His plans for a stimulus are too vague to guide the Congress, and the stronger Democratic majorities are very eager to break loose from the influence of the Bush White House.  

Congressional Democrats, having spent the last eight years bashing Republicans for carrying the White House’s water, have started to let loose their pent-up anger and liberal energy.  Obama, they think, will sign whatever legislation they send to him.  And they’re probably right:  Forget all the talk of “governing from the center,” the President-elect isn’t likely to veto any liberal policy and spending the Pelosi-Reid crowd send down from the Hill.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave a speech promising bipartisanship as she was sworn in for the 111th Congress.  But within hours of that speech, she proposed and the House quickly passed a series of rules changes that are what one Republican House member told me were, a “major change” and not “the minor tweaks” that have been reported.  On one key issue — tax increases — the new Pelosi rules are designed to prevent an up-or-down vote.  Under the new rules, Republicans can’t get such a vote on any tax decrease without proposing an equal tax increase of another kind, which they will not do.  

Four or five of the so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats — who proclaim themselves strong on defense and against big government — indicated discomfort with the Pelosi rules but all 30 of them voted with Pelosi.  

The most depressing news out of the House is that the Republican leadership has no plans — or even any desire — to challenge Obama on the $1 trillion stimulus package which will, among other economic damage it will cause, create jobs for another 600,000 federal bureaucrats.  

Some House conservatives are entirely fed up with their leaders, and Obama hasn’t even been sworn in yet.  One remarked that it was fitting that Speaker Pelosi surrounded herself with her grandchildren when being sworn in because they will be the ones paying for the coming tidal wave of government spending. It’s coming from the Senate as well as the House.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) harrumphed to Roll Call, “I don’t work for Barack Obama. I work with him.”  But Reid — facing three empty Democratic seats due to the messes in Illinois, Minnesota and New York — wants to enmesh Obama in Senate business as usual through the “stimulus” bill.  Reid’s eagerness to pass liberal legislation such as the “card check” bill to end secret ballots in unionization elections and amnesty for illegal immigrants is palpable and — like Pelosi – he’s confident Obama will sign anything the liberal Congress passes.  

The Bush White House was infamous for its poor relationship with Congress.  In George W.’s early days, the White House and Congress were linked by one of the best liaison officers ever to haunt a president’s office.  But when Powell Moore left, the relationship went from close to distant to almost uniformly hostile in a matter of weeks.

Last year, during the intense debates over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (and the president’s so-called “wireless eavesdropping” program in the National Security Agency), one senior Republican senator told me that the Democrats’ proposed limitations on NSA electronic interceptions would affect not only NSA, but probably interfere with battlefield intelligence gathering.  As a former Defense Department official, I expressed my amazement that the Pentagon wasn’t all over the Hill raising Cain over the problem.  

His answer was a shock.  The senator told me that the Bush administration wasn’t welcome on the Hill, and that any “help” they would try to give would likely cause more harm than good.  It will take a lot for Obama’s team to sink that low, but they seem to be on the same path.

Obama’s choice of former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta came as a surprise to those who should, instead, have been consulted earlier: both incoming Senate Select Committee Chair Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Ranking Republican Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) found out about the Panetta choice from the news media.  Feinstein wasn’t pleased, and immediately expressed skepticism about Panetta’s credentials to take on the job of the nation’s chief spy.  (He has none.) Sen. Bond expressed open-minded skepticism.

Not consulting with Feinstein, Bond (and their House counterparts) is a rookie mistake Obama can’t afford to repeat.  But the economic stimulus bill appears to be suffering the same sort of mishandling.

Obama — by not spending the last two months cultivating Congress — has put himself at a great disadvantage in shaping the legislative agenda.  Unless his leadership skills prove much better than we’ve seen, it may be Congress leading the White House rather than the other way around.

Next week, the House Democrats will probably put up another State Childrens’ Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill.   All we know about it now is that it’ll raise taxes and spend much more money.  Will the House Republican “leaders” stand up against this?  If not, what are they paid for?