THE BLOG
02/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Questioning The President Went From an Argument to a Conversation

If anyone is worried about Barack Obama's presidency bearing any resemblance whatsoever to George W. Bush's, the last few weeks should put your mind at ease.

Obama is still more than a week away from being inaugurated and he's already faced more questions from his his party and his supporters in one month than Bush has in his entire first term. His response, however, has been markedly different than his predecessor's. Imagine former Sen. Trent Lott declaring "I do not work for George W. Bush. I work with him," as Harry Reid told The Hill about Obama last week. Ari Fleischer would still be peeling Lott remnants off of the walls of Karl Rove's office.

Never mind that Reid is right: A Senator's job, regardless of party, is to do the will of the constituency that elected him. If that tends to mesh with the will of the president, all the better. It's just that no one can seem to remember Reid being that vocal in opposition of the Bush Administration. Perhaps, if Obama is lucky, Reid will be as much of a hindrance to the new administration's policy as he was to, say, the Patriot Act. For someone who spent much of his time as Senate Majority Leader being the political equivalent of a greeter at Wal-Mart, Reid has picked a hell of a time to squabble over a bloated executive authority he helped inflate.

Then there's Rep. John Conyers, the stalwart Congressman from Michigan who apparently isn't the biggest fan of CNN's chief medical correspondent and Obama's rumored Surgeon General pick. In agreeing with economist and Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, Conyers took a swipe at Dr. Sanjay Gupta's lack of experience and put himself squarely at odds with the president-elect and former Democratic National Committee leader Howard Dean, who thinks Gupta would be a "great appointment."

Never mind that Conyers is right, and that answering medical queries on a 24-hour news network hardly qualifies Gupta to oversee the United States Public Health Service and its 6,000 doctors. Were this the Bush administration, Conyers would be shoved off into some Gang of 14 while the administration and its cronies clamored for an up-or-down vote. Remember the heady days of the nuclear option? Good times.

Then there's Krugman, an Obama endorser whose column in the Times on Friday pointed out the broad shortcomings of the president-elect's economic plan. Sure, a $775 billion package isn't enough to close a $2 trillion production gap. Sure, a plan that puts 40 percent of its costs into tax cuts could probably stand to contain a bit more public spending. But you don't say these things out loud. You don't basically call the president a wuss for not pushing his plan past $1 trillion because of his "fear of debt" and "political caution."

Never mind that Krugman is right, and that his column spurred Obama to declare himself open to suggestion on the matter. The Bush administration has made it very clear that when economic hardship looms, you don't just go around telling people about it. You wait until the last possible moment, when all those funny little Wall Street graph arrows start taking the double-diamond course downhill, then truck Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson out to Capitol Hill to explain it all and ask for a loan. You don't seek opinions. That's for flower-sniffing drama queens.

Speaking of Hollywood, Anne Hathaway was less than inspired by Obama's choice of purpose-driven megachurch pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inaugural ceremony. Granted, the rest of America argued this point months ago, but few had the opportunity last week to use the Palm Springs Film Festival's red carpet to implore the future leader of the free world to "explain that choice of Rick Warren." Since Hathaway opted out of her childhood dream of becoming a nun in support of her brother, Michael, who is gay, cites Michael's wedding as her favorite wedding moment and supports the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, it's understandable why she may not may not be so cool with a pastor who opposes a cause she holds dear.

Never mind that Hathaway is right -- and that Obama should offer, and has offered, an explanation to a loyal base of his electorate that may feel somewhat miffed by this selection. But negative comments about a Democratic president from a known liberal member of the film community? Are we in bizarro world? Did Rahm Emanuel not send Hathaway a copy of the Streisand Doctrine, which dictates that all criticism of elected officials by left-leaning celebrities should be directed toward prominent and obvious members of the GOP in as demonizing and sarcastic a form as possible -- preferably through sophomoric song parody? Is he not making Rovian prank calls to her home line at 3 a.m. asking her to "explain that choice of Bride Wars"? If Bush had heard this, he'd have done an O'Douls spit take all over the James Monroe sofa.

Yet Obama's reactions have been as cool, collected and expectorate-free in the days leading to his inauguration as they had been throughout his campaign. Instead of having Rahm Emanuel act out a scene from the Dark Knight and drive a pencil through Harry Reid's cornea, Obama has asked for the majority leader's help. Instead of telling Conyers to worry more about his state's double-digit unemployment and less about the Surgeon General, Obama seems to be giving the selection some more thought. Instead of calling Krugman an economic backseat driver, Obama has asked for directions. Finally, instead of dismissing Hathaway and others who have criticized Warren, Obama stood by his pick and declared Warren's ideology just one of "a wide range of viewpoints that are presented."

These may not be the strongest reactions, or even ones that the public at large is comfortable with, but they have helped restore dialogue between the Executive Branch and the people it serves. They have offered an air of accountability and reopened the door to the notion that the president may not be right all of the time and that his coworkers and constituents can call him on it without a press secretary telling them to "watch what they say." After nearly a decade, it's nice to see that Americans can petition their president again.

Now he needs to hurry the hell up and fix everything.