Three Early Lessons for President Obama

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Feb 09, 2009 12:00 AM
Three Early Lessons for President Obama

Never before has so much been squandered for so many by so few. And that isn’t even counting the ridiculously ineffective and wasteful trillion-dollar “stimulus” package poised to emerge from the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Less than three weeks ago, Barack Obama assumed office with higher public hopes and more good-will than any new President has enjoyed in a generation. But through a combination of what looks suspiciously like arrogance and inexperience, the bloom is quickly fading from the Obama rose. If there are three lessons that the President might draw from his aborted honeymoon, they are that:

(1) Bipartisanship Requires More Than Words.

From his days on The Harvard Law Review forward, Barack Obama gained a reputation for “bipartisanship.” The problem? His much vaunted bridge-building was always a matter more of style than of substance. He would treat those who disagreed with him with great politeness and civility, listen their views, and then ignore them.

In environments like a law school campus, or Chicago city politics, or Illinois state politics – where liberals overwhelmingly outnumber conservatives – bipartisan words, without action, are enough. Where conservatives are otherwise completely disregarded and routinely treated with contempt, respectful words can secure their support and even a certain degree of affection. Throughout his life, Barack Obama has blossomed primarily in liberal hothouses; perhaps it’s no surprise that he concluded that a little lip service would fulfill the demands of bipartisanship. Indeed, even as a presidential candidate, Obama’s rhetoric extolling the benefits of “working together” successfully obscured his highly partisan voting record.

Perhaps that’s why the President believed that simply talking to Republicans would be enough to secure their support for the stimulus package, even though the final product reflected none of their input. But on the national stage, where liberals still have real competition for votes, words alone aren’t enough. Bipartisanship requires action – and meaningful compromise.

(2) Hell Hath No Fury Like the Media Scorned.

Hard-core Democrat partisans will stick with Obama no matter what he does. But he wooed many in the media through the promise of being different from the usual politician – more bipartisan, more principled, and committed to be a less contentious, more genial way of practicing politics.

The media would almost certainly continue to support him if its members could find a way to conclude that his actions have been principled or bipartisan in any way. But that’s difficult when he repeatedly nominates tax chiselers to high office and then stands by the nominations, or waives his much-lauded “no lobbyist” rules without a second thought. It’s almost impossible when he outsources the creation of an emergency stimulus bill to shameless partisans like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid – who have larded the bill with indefensible spoils for Democrat interest groups. And bipartisan criticism of the “stimulus” bill has elicited increasingly shrill partisan rhetoric from Obama, heralding the continuance of the bitter partisan warfare that the press loves to deplore.

Over a decade ago, when the media turned on Bill Clinton, it was because Clinton dashed its members’ dreams of having found the Democrat Ronald Reagan – a man who could combine liberal policies with public popularity and personal charm. The expectations for Barack Obama were even higher. That may mean that Obama has even farther to fall.

(3) Barack Obama Hasn’t “Sealed the Deal” with the American Public Yet.

For someone like Obama, who has literally been lauded as a modern day Messiah, it may be hard to believe that he’s still on probation with American voters. But it’s true. And proceeding as though his victory offered him an unassailable mandate is a recipe for disaster.

Fighting an unpopular war, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, voters decided to take a chance on the least-known, most inexperienced candidate to run for President in modern times – an appealing young man who spoke movingly about “hope” and “change.” Rightly or wrongly, many voters’ support for Obama was as much a repudiation of his predecessor (and current conditions) as a reflection of personal support for him and his policies.

Many Americans are still waiting to see who, exactly, Obama is. And until they know what he stands for – and then decide that they agree with him – he can “go over the heads of the politicians” and offer televised appeals all day long. It won’t make a bit of difference.

Americans want to like President Obama, and to wish him well. But even more, they want a President who can deliver the “hope” and “change” and “bipartisanship” that Obama pledged to win their votes. Given his youth, his relative inexperience, and the long odds he faced, it was probably necessary for Barack Obama to make big promises in order to become President. The only difficulty for him now is learning how to live up to them.