President Barack Obama is on a roll -- and Washington's pundits are struggling to keep up.
Commentators spent weeks body-slamming the administration's vetting and second-guessing Obama's legislative strategy. One stimulus and a few polls later, however, and many of the same experts are praising everything from the president's political outreach to his rousing congressional address. All this jumpy chatter drowns out a key lesson from Obama's first month in office.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is "experienced" Beltway insiders who have actually caused the largest problems for Obama.
When the new, young president stacked his administration with familiar Washington veterans, the predictable praise poured in. Washington Post columnist David Broder lauded Tom Daschle's appointment, hailing him as a "shrewd choice" to head Obama's health care reform. "The former South Dakota senator knows the politics of Capitol Hill intimately," Broder wrote in December, apparently unaware that old school politics can hinder reform.
We know how that turned out.
Bill Richardson and Judd Gregg never got confirmed as commerce secretary, and that's not the only distinction they share. Neither had a strong substantive background in business or commerce policy, but like Daschle, their supposed qualification was Washington experience.
For Richardson, however, years of politicking left him saddled with ethical questions that could not withstand public vetting. When Gregg got his turn, a caricature of senatorial indecision was on full display. The New Hampshire senator could have been representing Denmark with all his dramatic Hamlet-esque antics. If he couldn't stick to a single decision about his own career path, how could he manage the hundreds of choices bubbling up in a federal bureaucracy?
It is easy to forget, but the point of hiring Washington insiders was the promise that pros would run Washington smoothly. Obama assembled a team with "the greatest political experience of any Cabinet in memory," CNN's David Gergen declared in December, and that made for "one of the most promising Cabinets in decades."
That conventional wisdom was often accompanied by a focus on the Cabinet's centrism. "In constructing his administration, [Obama] has decided not to create a (liberal) Washington counter-establishment," journalist David Corn predicted in the Washington Post. "Instead, he's fashioning a bipartisan, centrist-loaded version of the Washington establishment to carry out his policies, which do tilt to the left."
There is very little evidence, so far, that the Obama team's Washington experience or centrism is required to advance policies that "tilt" left.
Health care reform has been delayed, at the very least. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's tax problems were a hypocritical distraction.
Then consider the new people. It is not a totally proportional comparison, but the non-Washington appointees seem to be Getting It Done without incident, from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to foreign policy adviser Samantha Power.
Now, to his credit, Obama does tend to correct course swiftly.
In naming his third nominee for commerce secretary, Obama thanked Gary Locke, former governor of the Evergreen State, for agreeing to "leave one Washington for another." Obama also joked that at the Commerce Department:
We've tried this a couple of times, but I'm a big believer in keeping at something until you get it right.
When it comes to finding new leaders instead of insiders, maybe the third time's the charm.
Meanwhile, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who rose through local politics without ever serving in Congress, will lead Health and Human Services. Locke and Sebelius don't have Daschle's mastery of legislative conflicts, but hopefully they won't have his conflicts of interest, either.
Finally, when it comes to Obama's bipartisan dreams, geography could be destiny.
While Washington Republicans march in lock step against the president's economic agenda, some of the party's governors are actually receptive. Charlie Crist of Florida already collaborated on the stimulus. California's Arnold Schwarzenegger said after huddling with colleagues recently that there's "a great shot" for environmental progress with Obama.
We know the public wants fundamental reforms, and as candidate Obama always said, change doesn't come from Washington, it comes to Washington. That is hard to pull off, of course, if you primarily work with people from Washington.
This column was originally published in Politico.
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