After many months of adoring media coverage and Democratic triumphalism, President Obama is now getting pasted by carnivorous columnists, angry activists, and House hotheads for every bow to bipartisanship, every deviation from liberal orthodoxy, and every tax-deficient nominee.
The problem is not that Obama is doing a bad job. For a new president beset with the most daunting combination of economic and national security nightmares in many decades, and with a recent run of bad luck, he's doing his job quite well. Shepherding the $789 billion economic stimulus bill through the ideologically polarized Congress was no small feat. And for a man seeking to overcome determined Republican opposition without demonizing his adversaries, he hit the right notes (if too long-windedly) in his first prime-time presidential press conference on Monday.
The president's political problem is that while he tries desperately to steer the storm-tossed ship of state off the rocks, partisans in both parties are reflexively acting out "a lot of bad habits built up here in Washington," as Obama told the press.
He stuck, despite a slip or two into tough rhetoric, to his conviction that fighting for his policy agenda and rejecting "the failed theories of the last eight years" does not require ascribing base motives to the opposition, disavowing any effort at compromise, or giving up on what some call his promise of "post-partisanship."
Obama also understands that a few party-line votes driven by clashing economic philosophies do not spell the doom of post-partisanship, which boils down to seeking common ground when possible and treating political adversaries with respect. Obama's extraordinary overtures to Republicans, he explained, "were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time."
But before very long, the president will have to make a fateful choice, as New York Times columnist David Brooks points out, between yielding to the partisan polarization that animates both political parties and forming a durable alliance with congressional moderates.
Will Obama let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her ardently liberal allies set the agenda, as he did to his apparent regret when they stuffed the original House stimulus bill with pet programs? Or will he stand with the handful of Senate moderates who trimmed some fat -- and who could, with the help of Obama and a few dozen Blue Dog House Democrats, hold the balance of power in Congress?
While Obama ponders such options, Democratic as well as Republican partisans and journalistic second-guessers have been trashing his every move and holding him to a standard of perfection that nobody could meet.
For reaching out to Republicans on the stimulus -- and acknowledging that the original House-passed version contained billions of dollars in not-very-stimulative stuff -- Obama gets Bronx cheers from the Left and snarky sneers from Maureen Dowd in The New York Times: "But then the prince got distracted, seeing Lincoln in the mirror, and... gave the kiss of life to a bunch of flatlining Republican tax-cut fetishists."
For pushing back against insatiable Republican demands for more tax cuts and less spending, Obama is accused of "snarling at conservative opponents of his endless spending programs" by conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, who emitted a snarl of her own at the president's sympathetic response to a Florida woman who complained at a rally that she and her family were living in a car.
For seeking to protect intelligence secrets from being exposed in lawsuits by Guantanamo detainees, Obama is reproached with almost apocalyptic despair by the ACLU. "Hope is flickering," it declared in one press release, because the new administration is "undermining... the restoration of the rule of law" and "complicit in hiding the abuses of its predecessors."
For repudiating other Bush policies on terrorism -- and especially for vowing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and to end brutal interrogations -- Obama gets a cheap shot from Dick Cheney. He suggested in an interview with Politico that Obama's people are "more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States" and are so soft that they might enable terrorists to murder "perhaps hundreds of thousands of people."
Some economists are especially overconfident in their diverse attacks on the Obama-backed stimulus bill. Indeed, as my colleague Clive Crook writes in the Financial Times, economics "has become the continuation of politics by other means."
The prototypically politicized economist is angry-liberal Nobelist Paul Krugman. "If you wish to know what Mr. Krugman thinks on any policy question," Crook writes, "do not read his scholarly writings; see which policies are advocated by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party." This pattern holds, Crook explains, even on matters such as protectionism, "where, if his scholarly work is any guide, the economics is firmly against his allies."
So it's no surprise that Krugman trashes Obama in his New York Times column for not embracing all House-passed spending programs, and for believing "that he can transcend the partisan divide" by compromising with centrist senators whose approach (Krugman says) "eliminates hundreds of thousands of American jobs, deprives millions of adequate health care and nutrition, [and] undermines schools."
Such rants do not impress the free-market-oriented Harvard economist Robert Barro, who unlike Krugman has done work in Keynesian macroeconomics. A critic of the classic Keynesian fix of dramatically increasing public spending during downturns, Barro is confident -- perhaps overconfident -- that the Obama-backed proposal "is probably the worst bill that has been put forward since the 1930s."
The economists' contradictory prescriptions only aggravate the polarization of the ideologues and the bafflement of independent thinkers who lack economic expertise.
Small wonder, then, that Republicans who look to economists such as Barro for guidance see the gigantic spending programs adopted by House and Senate Democrats as wasteful and potentially ruinous.
And small wonder that Democrats such as campaign consultant Bob Shrum (writing in The Week) can imagine no better reason for "the Taliban GOP" to vote against the Democratic bill than "to destroy the Obama presidency, to frustrate economic recovery and then blame the Democrats -- and so recapture the Congress and the White House on the backs of a broken middle class."
And small wonder that Obama, an independent thinker, is too smart to suppose that the liberal wing of his party has a monopoly on economic wisdom or that any compromise means changing the stimulus bill for the worse.
Meanwhile, the gotcha gang has been clucking "hypocrisy" and "disarray" about the inevitably messy compromises that Obama made between ability and ethical purity -- which he oversold during his campaign -- after being blindsided by the tax violations of Timothy Geithner, and then Tom Daschle.
Daschle had to go because his tax violations were so egregious as to suggest possible fraud, because they focused attention on his millions in influence-peddling income, and because the country can manage for a few weeks without a health care czar. Geithner got a pass because his tax violations were not quite serious enough to be disqualifying -- not at a time when dumping him as Treasury secretary would have meant a long and extremely damaging delay in getting the best possible team to work to avert economic catastrophe.
Perfectly consistent? No. Roughly right? Yes. And the presidential admission that "I screwed up" was all the more refreshing for the lack of a recent precedent.
Nor should Obama be judged harshly for the fact that Geithner bombed with investors when he revealed his less-than-confidence-inspiring financial rescue plan on Tuesday. Although this disappointing performance made the president look like a baseball manager whose highly touted bonus baby had struck out in his first at-bat, it didn't make him a bad manager.
Also in the bad luck department comes the withdrawal on Feb. 12 of Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH, as Obama's nominee for Commerce secretary. It looks in hindsight like Obama (and Gregg) didn't think through the likelihood that putting a conservative Republican into such a politically sensitive post would spawn the kind of "irresolvable conflicts" that Judd cited. But stuff happens, hindsight is cheap, and the Gregg miscue will be ancient history by Monday.
Nor is Obama's bid for bipartisanship moribund, as pronounced by many reporters and commentators after the economic stimulus package won no Republican votes in the House and only three in the Senate before going to a conference committee.
If bipartisanship means compromising every disagreement to the point of bringing along impressive numbers of Republicans, Obama will not achieve it. (Maybe that's why someone coined the not-quite-synonymous "post-partisan.") But if it means crediting opponents with sincerity in doing what they think is best for the country and shunning the poisonous, hate-filled rhetoric that has polluted our politics for so long, Obama is doing just fine. Some Republican leaders have responded in kind.
Indeed, it may be harder for Obama to get along with Democratic leaders and liberal groups, especially if he continues to distance himself from them as he did on the stimulus and if he allies with centrists on other issues as well.
According to Maureen Dowd, "Nancy Pelosi told her leadership team that she had told the president, 'I don't mind you driving the bus over me, but I don't appreciate your backing it up and running over me again and again.' "
Good line, if authentic. I hope that Obama responded: "Madame Speaker, I would never drive the bus over you -- not unless you keep forgetting who's at the wheel."
This article appears in the February 14, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.