Politico Gives Mixed 'Case For Skepticism' About Obama

02/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Life is returning to normal in Washington, DC this morning As clean-up crews get down to the messy business of picking up after yesterday's celebration, President Barack Obama gets to face the messy business of governing. With the admission that it "seem[s] needlessly sour" to start loudly puncturing balloons, Jim VandeHei and John Harris of The Politico offer "Seven reasons for healthy skepticism," as a means of resetting expectations. After yesterday's somber call for a "new era of responsibility," this is probably doing the new President a favor. And some of the reasoning is quite sound.

The pair's take on the always over-appreciated concept of "bipartisanship" is particularly spot-on, citing the fact that "bipartisanship" is typically used as a cover for policy error. As Matt Yglesias once wrote, "While polarization has its drawbacks, the alternative is often worse." VandeiHei and Harris have some fitting examples:

But the instinct for bipartisanship overlooks an inconvenient fact: Some of Washington's biggest blunders occur when the government moves to do big things with big support. Bush won the much-regretted Iraq war resolution of October 2002 with strong Democratic backing.


Rewind just a few months back. Republicans and Democrats alike said the best of many bad options was to approve $700 billion to prop up banks, mainly to thaw the credit freeze and juice the economy. Half the money is gone now. Many banks took the cash and sat on it. Some used it increase lending. But much of it was wasted or unaccounted for. Now Washington wants to spend the rest of it.

In light of today's confirmation hearings for Timothy Geithner, I'm glad to see the pair putting Geithner's own IRS problems in a position of lesser importance than what should be the most picked over aspect of Geithner's career -- his...how shall we say this? Rubin-esqueness.

But recent history teaches us to be wary of the larger-than-life Washington figures supposedly striding across history's stage. Consider the economy. Everyone seems to agree Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner are smart, vastly qualified to manage and repair the economy.

Everyone was saying the exact same things about the two economic geniuses of the 1990s: Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan. Now Rubin has been reduced to making excuses for his involvement in high-risk investments and for helping oversee the demise of Citigroup, which lost $10 billion in the past three months alone. The onetime oracular Greenspan has admitted to Congress that his once-revered economic philosophy had "a flaw," and many blame him for turning a blind eye to the housing bubble.

There are other good points, including a mention of the economic decline of the press (which doesn't really constitute "dozing" but, whatever) and a note that evaluating Obama's decision-making ability by extrapolating from campaign decisions no longer cuts the mustard. There are other items on the listicle that I find wanting.

For instance, BREAKING! "We are broke." Uhm, thanks for that, I suppose! And what follows is the typically glib state-of-the-economy-as-we-non-experts-understand-it-from-flash-cards. Deficits are high! Obama wants to stimulate the economy with a spending package! But deficits are high! And what if Obama wants to enact some bold initiative? Because, in case you haven't heard, "DUH FUH CYSTS ARE HUHH." Argh. Time was a President had to fight, vainly and wanly, to get some credit for reducing deficits. Then those same deficits get run up all over again, without much notice. Now, reporters my the millions have decided to rebrand themselves as deficit hawks, long after that ship's left port. Get a time machine, boys.

And this point, frankly, seems flatly incorrect:

Obama frequently talks of the need to transcend partisanship. And he invokes his support for charter schools -- a not-terribly-controversial idea -- as evidence that he is willing to challenge Democratic special interest groups.

In fact, there are few examples of him making decisions during the campaign or the transition that offended his own party's constituencies, or using rhetoric that challenged his own supporters to rethink assumptions or yield on a favored cause.

Has Obama ever delivered a "Sister Souljah speech"? Ever stood up to organized labor in the way that Clinton did in passing North American Free Trade Agreement?

I guess VandeHei and Harris missed the news that Reverend Rick Warren offered the invocation at yesterday's inaugural. A brief Google search of the terms "Rick Warren" and "Sister Souljah" indicates that they are comfortably in the minority. See also: Obama and DC gun restrictions, Obama and FISA, Obama and the appointment of John Brennan, Obama and the retention of Robert Gates, Obama and "looking forward" with regard to the Bush administration, Obama and entitlement reform, and Obama and tax cuts in the stimulus package. Also, watch carefully, because Obama's desire to refocus attention on the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater is already starting to draw resistance.

Ultimately, there's a big expectations-based problem that Obama faces that no one talks about, probably because it's just too soon to contemplate. But consider this: Obama has set the stage for his presidency as one that will seek to fill in any number of holes that have been left behind. It's shovel-ready time. But how sexy can one make the filling of a hole? Where's the sizzle? What if an unprecedented run of structurally sound decisions only gets the nation back to square one? In four years, someone's got to sell Square One to the American people as a Shiny Thing. When you consider how well dosed with hope the citizenry is, that's going to be a tough task. If Davids Axelrod and Plouffe awoke with a lingering hangover this morning, it's likely that their temples throb with the mounting pressure of great expectations.