Barack Obama was something of a whirling dervish following his election to the presidency. His energy was palpable; his desire to “hit the ground running” once he actually became president was abundantly apparent.
Now, with barely two weeks under his belt in the nation’s highest office, his ambition is no less evident. Clearly, he wants to change the general directions that existed in both domestic and foreign policy under the Bush administration, and he wants to do it in a new spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship. He wants, in other words, to have what experience is quickly telling him he can’t have, to wit: the best of all possible worlds, wherein everyone sees the need to pursue his agenda and everyone wants to be part of his solutions.
To be sure, he is a man on a mission, and his sincerity and good motives cannot be questioned. But, even as he has acknowledged that he has much to do, he may also need, as these first weeks have shown, to accept that he has much to learn.
All new presidents experience the reality of learning curves. Whether they come to the job with a wealth of experience (as, for example, Bush 41 did) or come with precious little (as might have been said of Bill Clinton and Bush 43 and certainly is true of Obama), they immediately confront the unbelievable magnitude of their task.
Stated far too simply, that task is to control and direct the entire federal government, which, even from the most politically conservative perspective, means conducting foreign policy, managing economic and fiscal policy, and directing the work of tens of thousands of government employees, all while keeping the country safe and secure.
It is, as most Americans would readily acknowledge, a job intended only for those with the most supreme skill sets and with the most committed sense of duty.
And still, most presidents, especially in their first year, stumble badly.
It’s that learning curve that gets them.
And so it has been, already, for Obama, on at least two fronts, both of which he could only have foreseen if he’d had the job before, which is why a second term for a good president is desirable and why term limits for the presidency might not be.
But, getting back to President Obama, he’s been taking his lumps in two areas over these first weeks of his administration, and both are clearly learning-curve related.
The first area is presidential appointments. He’s been embarrassed at least three times already, all three embarrassments due to what Washington insiders would call insufficient vetting. Vetting is that process of combing through a potential nominee’s background to see if there might be anything in the individual’s past that suggests a bad fit for the job being considered.
Vetting has become something of a “process” over the years. It now requires staffs of attorneys and accountants who pour over all manner of material, starting with basic stuff like arrest and health records and proceeding to public actions, speeches, published documents and tax returns.
Tax returns are especially significant in the current climate in Washington because the economy is in the tank, and restoring it to good health is a, if not the, top priority of the new administration.
Thus it was a shock to learn that the announced nominees for two major cabinet positions (Treasury and Health and Human Services) had major issues about their tax returns.
Tim Geithner’s mistakes were deemed excusable only because they mostly concerned income received while he worked in an international organization (the International Monetary Fund). But as the individual who would be responsible for collecting taxes (the IRS does fall within the purview of the Treasury Department), it was a hard one to swallow.
Tom Daschle’s errors amounted to a whopping $128,000 in unpaid back taxes, placing an untenable burden on his nomination that led to his withdrawal this week.
Geithner probably withheld information in the vetting process that, if revealed, probably would have disqualified him from further consideration for the job for which he was selected.
The third embarrassment, the selection and sudden withdrawal from consideration of Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary, was also the result of inadequate vetting. Adding to the embarrassment has been Obama’s lengthy delay in filling this last cabinet post.
And so Mr. Obama has hopefully learned his first lesson: never assume you, as president, are being told everything you need to know, especially when the information directly affects a person’s possible position in your administration.
The second area where Obama has been getting an education is in his dealings with Congress. And, as if to prove he is an equal opportunity student, he’s getting lessons from both sides of the aisle.
The Republicans have accepted all of his graciousness (visits to their caucus, invites to cocktail and Super Bowl parties at the White House) while thumbing their nose at his call for bipartisan support of his stimulus bill.
And the House Democrats have taken advantage of their sudden dominance to load up that bill with all manner of funding for programs that are only related to a stimulus of the economy in the most liberal (pun intended) definition of that term. The bill they crafted, for example, certainly doesn’t emphasize those “shovel-ready” projects that Obama has said he wants funded.
Thus Obama is learning two lessons about the branch of government he just left: it has an aversion to bipartisanship, and it will pursue its own agenda irrespective of political party.
Obama may still need to study these lessons. He may understand that his battles with Congressional Republicans will be ongoing, but unless he puts the Congressional Democrats in their place (they, after all, are beholden to him for any legislation they want to get enacted), he’s going to have a very rough first year.
He can start with the flawed stimulus bill the House has produced. Without further ado, he should get that bill amended to reflect what he wants it to do.
Cocktail parties and caucus visits are nice, but sometimes you just have to crack the whip.