For Barack Obama, one perverse advantage of being saddled with a dire economic crisis is that it overwhelms all other issues, including those that might be thorny and embarrassing for the new administration.
For instance, during his first presidential press conference last night, Obama didn't have to field any questions about troop withdrawals from Iraq or our future role in Iraq. (Military expert Thomas Ricks writes in his lauded new book that "no matter how the U.S. war in Iraq ends, it appears that today we may be only halfway through it.") Nor did Obama have to field any questions about his Monday flip-flop on the torture issue. (During the '08 campaign, he had assailed the Bush regime's "extraordinary rendition" policy of shipping detainees to nations where they could be tortured; but yesterday, in a federal lawsuit filed by five detainees, an Obama administration lawyer sided with the Bush regime's argument that the case should be dismissed in order to protect government secrets - a stance that prompted the ACLU to rip Obama: "This is not change. This is definitely more of the same.") Nor did Obama last night have to field any questions about tax-evader Tom Daschle, who's now in mea culpa mode ("I was stupid! I was naive!"...no wait, that's A-Rod talking about his steroids).
No, the crisis dominated the dialogue last night, and that was surely fine with Obama, who used the forum to maximum advantage - not merely to lay out the wonky nuances of the economic situation with a fluency that the average American could understand, and to lower the bar on his success metrics by warning that the recovery package won't be perfect, but also to practice a bit of good cop/bad cop on the recalcitrant Republicans.
The Republicans have been congratulating themselves for saying No, and that has given them some short-term messaging stimulus. But it is exceedingly difficult, over the longer term, to combat a president who (a) has a much bigger megaphone and the chops to use it well, and (b) is far more trusted as an economic messenger than the party that governed so ruinously for most of the past decade. In the latest Gallup poll, Obama boasts a 67 percent approval rating for his handling of the government's efforts to pass a recovery package; the congressional Republicans check in at 31 percent.
Naturally, the GOP has sought to spin away those numbers, by arguing that Obama's high rating reflects his popularity, not support for his big-spending bill. That's true, in the narrow sense. But, more importantly, those Gallup numbers indicate that the public - by a 36-point margin - is far more primed to listen to Obama, not the GOP, during this ongoing economic debate. (Meanwhile, a new Pew poll reports a nine-point plurality for the GOP argument that tax cuts are more stimulative than government spending; on the other hand, Obama's job approval rating is 30 points higher than the congressional GOP's.) All told, most Americans seem far less concerned about Obama's early missteps than the talking heads that have dominated the cable TV coverage over the past several weeks. Most people, as evidenced by Gallup and Pew, want him to frame this debate.
He sought to work those advantages last night. He wobbled a few times - at one point, he said that a success metric is whether the recovery package creates four million jobs; at other points, he said it was about creating or saving four million jobs - but ultimately he framed the debate in simple terms: "Do you just want government to do nothing, or do you want it to do something?" Doing nothing, he said, is not an option. Doing something is usually imperfect ("I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hoped"), but it is the only option right now.
His message to the Republicans: "It is absolutely true that we can't depend on government alone to create jobs or economic growth. That is and must be the role of the private sector. But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle..."
Indeed, the recurring motif was his two-tier attitude toward the GOP. Gone was the Obama who, several weeks ago, seemed anxious to lean over backwards to accomodate the other party. Last night's Obama appeared to oscillate between good cop and bad cop. He repeatedly indicated his willingness to pat Republicans on the back, but he now feels that he has sufficient cause to smack them upside the head.
While he envisions a new era of bipartisan civility some time down the road - whereby he would entertain "whatever arguments are persuasive and backed up by evidence and facts and proof" - he appears to recognize that, for now, he'd be better off trying to mobilize the public and marginalize the GOP naysayers.
For instance, this was aimed at the congressional Republicans who spent most of the past decade working in cahoots with Bush to spread red ink on the federal ledger: "I inherited the deficit that we have right now and the economic crisis that we have right now....When it comes to how we approach the issue of fiscal responsibility, again, it's a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they've presided over a doubling of the national debt. I'm not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility."
He also said, in a variety of ways, that he is happy to "have a discussion" with those congressional Republicans who are willing to accept the reality of government's crucial role in the recovery. Regarding those lawmakers, "I'm happy to have conversations about this tax cut versus that -- that tax cut or this infrastructure project versus that infrastructure project." I took this message as his attempt to separate the sane Republicans from the sizeable flat-earth faction.
All told, it appears that while he intends to pursue his overtures to the opposition as the recovery package moves toward Senate-House deal-making, he will more assertively seek to sell his stimulus priorities to a public that seems willing to listen - with no illusions that large numbers of Republicans will cross the aisle. (What the heck. He'd probably lure a lot more Republicans into the fold if he simply promised that all the government spending would go to job creation in Iraq.)
Obama is likely to stick with this more assertive strategy long after the recovery package is enacted and signed - because it's a fair bet that if the measure proves insufficient (particularly if it doesn't contain enough bucks for the states, thereby forcing the states to lay off a lot of public employes), Obama and Congress might be compelled to gin up a second package later this year. The new president needs to establish himself right now as messenger-in-chief, while the wind is at his back, with an eye toward these future tussles.
Footnote: Obama took a broad swipe last night at his former opponent, John McCain. As you may have heard, McCain the other day confirmed what he said about himself during the '08 campaign - that he doesn't know much about economics - by huffing: "This isn't a stimulus bill. It's a spending bill!"
Obama's rejoinder: "And so when I hear people just saying...'This is a spending bill, not a stimulus bill,' without acknowledging that, by definition, part of any stimulus package would include spending - that's the point - then what I get a sense of is, is that there's some ideological blockage there that needs to be cleared up."
Actually, liberal commentator Ezra Klein has a wittier rejoinder: "Similarly, this is not a restaurant; it's a place that sells food in exchange for money. And this is not library; it's a facility that lends books. And this is not my mother; it's the woman who gave birth to me and later provided me with sandwiches."