WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's political honeymoon is now over.
It was steamy and nice while it lasted. The 44th president was elected as a voice of reason transcending stale ideological debates and a symbol of unity in a nation long afflicted by bigotry. He seemed, on brief public acquaintance, to be pragmatic, positive, steady, moderate and thoughtful. In the months following his election, Obama expanded his support well beyond the coalition that had voted for him in November, attracting many seniors and white men -- working-class and college-educated -- who had supported John McCain.
But, as Ron Brownstein argued last week on NationalJournal.com, recent polls have revealed a president "back to something like square one in his political coalition." Obama's core support remains strong. His post-election gains, however, have largely dissipated. According to Brownstein, the president "failed to convert many voters who gave him a second look after preferring John McCain last year." Obama still dominates the political landscape, but he has not changed its contours.
Honeymoons always end. But it is fair to ask: What did Obama use this initial period of unique standing and influence to achieve? It will seem strange to history, and probably, eventually, to Obama himself, that the president's main expenditure of political capital and largest legislative achievement was a $787 billion stimulus package he did not design, and which ended up complicating the rest of his policy agenda. Such a pleasant honeymoon -- yet all we got was this lousy stimulus bill.
President Obama staked the initial reputation of his administration on the wisdom, restraint and economic innovation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic congressional leadership. It was a mistake. The legislation they produced plugged the fiscal holes in state budgets and Medicaid, and indulged eight years of pent-up Democratic spending demands on priorities from education to child care to Amtrak. The package did little to promote investment, job creation and economic growth. By one estimate, about 12 cents of every dollar spent was devoted to genuine economic stimulus. While Obama himself remains popular, support for his largest legislative achievement now stands at 34 percent.
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