Jonah Goldberg

You've got to give Barack Obama credit. His learning curve gets steeper and steeper, but he continues to climb.

"I'm going to let him speak very briefly," Obama said Friday before making the fateful decision to allow a smirking Bill Clinton a none-too-brief moment in front of the cameras. It was the sort of famous blunder that comes after getting into a land war in Southeast Asia or getting into a contest with a Sicilian when death is on the line.

He might as well have said, "I'm going to let this grizzly bear have just one lick of my ice cream cone."

Still, that Clinton is a camera hog, or even that he puts the lie to Obama's reputation as the most eloquent Democrat, are easy lessons to learn compared with accepting the need to embrace George W. Bush's tax cuts and ask Clinton for help selling the decision.

You have to think Obama is wondering where he took a wrong turn.

The obvious answer: his stimulus bill, which is so unpopular now that Bill Clinton joked on Friday, "I guess we're not supposed to use that word anymore."

But that's not how it was when Obama took office with an approval rating near 70 percent (83 percent of Americans approved of his transition efforts). Contrary to the spin, many congressional Republicans were either eager to work with the new president or terrified of opposing him. They weren't opposed to a stimulus bill either.

But the White House decided to sign on to the pork-heavy stimulus crafted by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, without GOP input -- "We won the election. We wrote the bill," Pelosi boasted -- thus blowing up Obama's still-plausible image as a bipartisan president and emboldening the Republicans to oppose the stimulus, which also left them free to run against the sinking "Obama economy."

The Republicans discovered that opposing Obama's partisan agenda was good politics. By the health-care debate, independents flocked to the GOP, delivering electoral victories throughout 2009, and delivering a House majority last month. That new reality is why we got the Clinton rerun Friday.

But what if Obama had gone another way? What if he had rejected both the Democratic and the Republican stimulus bills and gone for a one-year payroll tax holiday of some kind, as many economists suggested at the time?

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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