ENPR: Obama Takes Office With Immense Political Capital


  1. President Barack Obama takes the reins of a nation diminished in prosperity, morale, and reputation. The hope and change he promises have inspired most Americans and nearly all of the news media to rally behind him. His youth and his being the first black President add to his aura. Rarely, if ever, has a President entered office with so much political wind at his back. These high expectations give him immense political capital, but also present high risks.
  2. The soft, pleasant tones with which Obama has wooed the country will soon have manifest themselves in concrete policies. Obama, at the start, looks politically shrewd enough to invest and spend his political capital well. The political innovation his team displayed on the campaign trail is showing itself as he ascends to the White House.
  3. George W. Bush leaves a party and a conservative movement in shambles. He expresses confidence his reputation will recover, but will his base?

Obama Administration

Inauguration: Obama’s inauguration weekend transformed Washington for the time being and reflected unprecedented enthusiasm for the new President among his liberal base, African-Americans, and the media.

  1. Obama’s inaugural address was well-written and well-delivered. But the high expectations about his rhetoric—set by his 2004 convention speech and his post-Iowa speech—made this one a bit unimpressive. Most reporters searching for a powerful line to immediately memorialize came out empty handed.
  2. His best rhetorical flourish was his ending. Invoking Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, calling for courage, and, in a sense, calling on Americans to get in the boat with him, Obama voiced confidence and a call for unity.
  3. His speech included more gloomy words and more gray skies than did Ronald Reagan‘s inaugural address under similarly dark circumstances. This was part of Obama’s effort to lower the astronomical expectations that he will somehow make everything good in America again. He did hit the positive notes, but his supporters seemed to be more brimming with hope and optimism than were his words.
  4. On terrorism and foreign policy, Obama hit the strong, combative notes he needed to hit. He also made sure to mention preservation of "our ideals" while pursuing national security goals—a reference to torture and civil liberties, which may have been the hottest issues among the Democratic "netroots" that helped catapult Obama to the nomination and the presidency. At the same time, he tried to dismiss a standard knock on Democrats of being too "cosmopolitan" by declaring "we will not apologize for our way of life."
  5. The President showed how he intends to use his post-partisan reputation to advance his agenda. He declared it a given that more market regulation is needed, dismissed as backwards "cynics" all those who "question the scale of our ambitions," and portrayed the big-government/small-government divide as a misleading one. If he can succeed in setting these questions to the side, he will be a long way to his goal of creating a new New Deal.
  6. While the overall speech was less than remarkable, some individual lines used bold, even presumptuous, language. He declared his aim was to "prepare the nation for a new age," and to "begin the work of remaking America."
  7. There were also some bows to conservatism in the speech. Obama called for "new era of responsibility," turned to "old truths," and lauded individual sacrifice over government programs.
  8. As was fitting an inaugural address, the speech was lacking in specifics, except for fleeting references to financial regulation and a mention of wind and solar power.

Cabinet: Most of Obama’s top cabinet picks sailed through the Senate Tuesday by unanimous consent, but a handful are being held up.

  1. Most notably, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) objected to immediate confirmation of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of State. Cornyn cited concerns over the global fundraising of former President Bill Clinton as well as Clinton’s globetrotting speaking tours on which foreign entities enrich Sen. Clinton personally by paying huge honoraria to her husband.
  2. At press time, however, it looked like Clinton would be handily approved on a roll call vote.
  3. Recall that throughout Bush’s eight years, Sen. Clinton voted against every Bush nominee except the least contested. On some nominations, she was the sole lone vote. If Republicans were planning on retribution now that the Democrats have the White House, it hasn’t shown itself yet.
  4. Atty. Gen.-designee Eric Holder and Treasury designee Timothy Geithner have also been held up, but both will be confirmed.

Bush Administration

Former President George W. Bush leaves office with embarrassingly low approval ratings, almost no concrete accomplishments to point to, and his nation struggling.

Record: Bush’s failures are how he is remembered at this moment, but the 43rd president largely delivered what he promised.

  1. Bush’s two first-term blows to conservatism—No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill—fulfilled promises he had made on the campaign trail. Bush never promised to cut spending, and he didn’t. He promised to cut taxes, and he did. Mostly importantly, he promised Supreme Court Justices in the mold of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, and (with some nudging) he delivered them in John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
  2. The campaign promise on which he most notably did not deliver was his call for a "more humble foreign policy" and his declared opposition to nation-building. On that score, he gave the clichéd but not irrelevant defense that "9/11 changed everything."
  3. Invading Iraq—and doing it with fewer troops than the uniformed military brass was calling for—was the beginning of Bush’s downfall. When weapons of mass destruction did not show up, the administration’s credibility was badly damaged. When the occupation took a turn for the worse, his "Mission Accomplished" moment looking foolish. When conditions continued to worsen, Bush looked incompetent.


  4. Autumn of 2005 was the moment of collapse. The exploding scandal of Jack Abramoff tainted the whole Republican brand, and the bungled handling of Katrina (even if it was more of a public-relations disaster than anything else, as his defenders contend) combined with Iraq to make Bush look feckless.
  5. At the same time, Bush nominated Harriet Miers and defended her vociferously while his surrogates attacked those among his base who dissented. At this time, his supporters’ pent-up frustration erupted and many of his conservative critics transformed into downright opponents. After four and a half years of trampling on fiscal conservatism, Bush was trying to diminish pro-lifers’ concerns while simultaneously offending the sensibilities of the intellectual elites on his side.
  6. Bush’s fight for liberalized immigration laws also undermined his support. He attacked his critics as "not want[ing] what is best for America." He was nearly friendless by the time the 2006 elections came around, and his party’s devastation in that cycle cemented his reputation as a failed President.
  7. Torture, military tribunals, and warrantless domestic wiretapping turned out to be the issues that most motivated the Democratic base—another way in which Bush’s aggressive foreign policy aided his political enemies.

Legacy: Washington is a very different town because of Bush’s eight-year reign in the White House, heading the GOP.

  1. The clearest political fallout of the Bush Administration is the one-party rule in Washington today. Massive Democratic majorities in both chambers are the direct consequence of the unpopularity of the Iraq War—the elective invasion on which Bush deliberately staked his presidency—and the lack of a coherent Republican message on the economy.
  2. Democratic activists seizing the power of the Internet was a major cause of the 2006 and 2008 landslides, but Bush created the energy into which the Netroots tapped. Bush galvanized the Left because his appearance of incompetence combined with the accusations of torture and the domestic wiretapping so infuriated liberals that they channeled their frustration simply into helping the Democratic Party.
  3. A more significant fruit of the last eight years may be the collapse of conservatism as it had been articulated by Reagan and then by the Republicans who took over Congress in 1994. Bush’s "compassionate conservatism," meant more government and open borders, but somehow was expanded to include waterboarding and domestic wiretapping. There was no rhetorical or ideological consistency.
  4. Bush was the first nominee since the conservative movement had come into maturity in the 1980s, to run, in good part, as a movement conservative. As a result, his party and many of the movement’s’ institutions and media outlets contorted themselves for more than five years to mesh with the President. When the Harriet Miers nomination brought the Bush-support-structure crashing down, an eroded conservative foundation was revealed beneath.
  5. Bush led congressional Republicans to expand the federal role in education, create a prescription-drug entitlement, and dramatically increase federal spending. In subtler ways, too, he dismantled the conservative teachings on government, with, for example, his two stimulus packages, and his twice sending out checks from the IRS to taxpayers. These moves reinforced the notion of Washington as a Santa Claus and the idea that Washington can and should actively stimulate the economy.
  6. The bailouts, supported by most Republicans in Congress, left the GOP without anything like a coherent message on the economy—as manifested by John McCain’s ineptitude on the issue. Can lawmakers really object to added federal regulation of an industry to whom they’ve given the keys to the Treasury?
  7. Looking forward, the massive Wall Street bailouts—and not Iraq—may turn out to be Bush’s true lasting legacy. The relationship between Wall Street and Washington is forever changed, and President Obama is now armed with unprecedented control over our nation’s leading industry. With Obama’s ambition and this power, our economy could look completely different—and far more dependent on Washington—by the time the next President comes into office.
  8. Could history, as Bush suggests, recall him more fondly than his contemporaries do? Surely. Terrorists haven’t struck us in seven years and Iraq is stabilizing. On Sept. 12, 2001, we appeared to be settling into a terrifying, bloody battle with Islamic terrorists. In a few years or decades, it’s possible that threat will appear fairly contained, and it’s possible Bush’s regime change in Iraq will have played a crucial role in containing it.


Florida: State Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (D) has declined to run for the Senate seat being left open by retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R), which leaves this race without any heavyweights in either party. On the Republican side, former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has also declined to run, and current Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has not yet been persuaded to throw in his hat.

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) is the only Democrat officially in the race. He may be joined soon by House colleagues Allen Boyd (D) and Ron Klein (D). State Sen. Dan Gelber (D) is rumored to be eyeing a run, too.

Republicans considering a bid include former House Speaker Marco Rubio (R), and Representatives Connie Mack (R) and Vern Buchanan (R). If Crist entered the race, he would be a strong favorite.

Kansas: Republicans have a real primary battle on their hands in the open-seat Senate race there. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R) has not officially declared his candidacy, but he has said that will declare his candidacy. This sets up a primary contest with Rep. Jerry Moran (R).

The Kansas Republican Party is really two parties, with the division between the moderate wing and the conservative wing in many ways deeper than the division between the moderate Republicans and the Democrats. Moran is not a card-carrying member of the moderate wing, but he is their candidate in this contest to replace retiring conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R), who is running for governor.

The big question in this race: Will retiring Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) enter the Senate contest? If she doesn’t jump in, the Democrats’ only hope to take this seat is a very bloody Republican primary—not a rare occurrence in this state.