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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn

Posted February 9, 2009 | 09:02 PM (EST)

Obama's Impressive Recovery


Like the economy, President Obama has been reeling in recent days. But tonight's press conference was the first step to his own political recovery. Hovering over Obama's speech and answers was the ghost of George W. Bush. Again and again, Obama worked to dispel Republican canards about his stimulus package and to point out that it was his free-market critics who got the country into this mess in the first place "by doubling the national debt." His tone was stern and imperative. The president underscored that the age of excess has come to an abrupt end, whether it's bankers toying with other people's money (a nice allusion to Louis Brandeis' famous book, Bankers and Other People's Money) or A-Rod and Co bulking up on steroids.

From the outset, Obama made it abundantly clear that in this crisis he believes that government isn't the problem; it's the answer. It's a measure of how effectively the GOP has tapped into fears about big government that Obama was obliged to defend himself on this score. But as the president observed, he didn't enter office "ginned up" to spend $800 billion, but to gin up the economy itself, it's imperative to create a stimulus that will actually stimulate growth. At the same time, Obama set a high bar for himself in declaring that he should be judged on whether or not his plan creates 4 million jobs, stabilizes the credit markets, and "stems the rate of foreclosure[s]." Still, Obama did not engage in utopian promises about the next year, noting that he doesn't have a "crystal ball" and that it will be a very harsh year.

Obama was at his weakest in defending his embrace of bipartisanship. The blunt fact is that it has failed lamentably. "The Republicans were brought in early," as he noted. But it got him next to nothing. As a result, the shocking thing about the stimulus isn't the spending provisions, but that 35 percent of it is devoted to tax cuts. The most that Obama promised, however, for the future was "consultation," which is an elastic term. Obama called himself the "eternal optimist," but it's probably more a product of wishful thinking to believe that he can convert conservatives back to reality.

After eight years of a president who was barely able to respond to impromptu questions, however, it was simply refreshing to have a leader who can deliver forthright, direct responses, whether it's the fancy footwork that Obama displayed in deflecting a question about Joe Biden's gaffe or the blunt criticism that he directed at major league baseball. That was change that no one could possibly want to quibble about.