President Obama believes in civility. His opposition doesn't. Only days after the inauguration, Rush Limbaugh pushed to the front of the pack to say he hoped Obama would fail. At first Republicans were shocked by his bad behavior. But they soon rallied around Limbaugh and through him rediscovered their hectoring voice.
For the stimulus package, Obama held true to his desire for bipartisanship. He allowed more tax cuts into the bill, even against the preferences of his own party because he wanted to meet Republicans half-way. What he got in return was derision.
The Republicans saw his hand extended in bipartisanship as evidence that he is a wimp.
What Obama forgot is that political opponents happily lie and misrepresent when it gives them an advantage. His opponents aren't just a disaffected group looking for inclusion. They are his antagonists and they are defined by their differences with him.
Joining in the attack on the stimulus package, John McCain picked up his mindless old war cry of "Pork, pork, pork." Ignoring history, Senator Mitch McConnell intoned that government spending on infrastructure projects was the wrong way to stimulate the economy because, as we all know, FDR's New Deal was an abject failure. Not withstanding eight abysmal years of the Bush administration, the Republicans are back to their old messages: Democrats are the party of wasteful spending, government is too large, and the only way to stimulate the economy is to lower taxes.
Obama was caught off guard by Republican bully-partisanship.
Paul Krugman argues that Obama's best impulses may conspire against his intentions. His desire for consensus, his experience as a community organizer, his native goodness potentially make him easy prey for his adversaries. Witness, Mr. Krugman says, the details of the stimulus package. By embracing the changes promoted by the so-called centrist senators, he has in fact allowed the heart of the package to be gutted. Krugman writes:
One of the best features of the original plan was aid to cash-strapped state governments, which would have provided a quick boost to the economy while preserving essential services. But the centrists insisted on a $40 billion cut in that spending.
The original plan also included badly needed spending on school construction; $16 billion of that spending was cut. It included aid to the unemployed, especially help in maintaining health care -- cut. Food stamps -- cut. All in all, more than $80 billion was cut from the plan, with the great bulk of those cuts falling on precisely the measures that would do the most to reduce the depth and pain of this slump.
On the other hand, the centrists were apparently just fine with one of the worst provisions in the Senate bill, a tax credit for home buyers. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research calls this the "flip your house to your brother" provision: it will cost a lot of money while doing nothing to help the economy.
All in all, the centrists' insistence on comforting the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted will, if reflected in the final bill, lead to substantially lower employment and substantially more suffering.
But how did this happen? I blame President Obama's belief that he can transcend the partisan divide -- a belief that warped his economic strategy.
Underlying Krugman's question is a larger one. Can a decent man be president? Do the demands of the office require a human being with the ability to conspire, deceive, and manipulate? Can Obama learn to manage the political process and accomplish his policy goals and still remain who he is as a human being?
During the early democratic primaries, I wasn't an Obama supporter. I worried that he was too untried to make it through the slug fest of national politics. In the early debates, Hillary and Edwards got the better of him. They had a better command of the facts and they were more aggressive, more willing to strike for the jugular. Obama looked weak.
And then over the next several weeks and in the subsequent debates, Obama transformed himself. He mastered the facts. He traded blow for blow. He became a candidate of conviction and strength and he beat Hillary in the primaries and then John McCain and the Republican hate machine in the general election.
He prevailed then because he was willing to identify his own failings and learn from them. Now that he is president he is faced with even more difficult circumstances. Until he has a filibuster-proof 60 vote majority in the Senate, he will be forced into compromises with opponents who bear him ill-will. How he balances his emotional needs for bipartisanship with the political realities will determine if he can achieve his policy goals. In the primaries he proved he was up to the challenge, I believe he will do it again as president.