With the passage of his $800B stimulus package, the president won a pyrrhic victory in that he succeeded in getting most of what he wanted, but failed to change the petty and childish political scramble in Washington. Lawmakers disgraced themselves and their country by playing politics while people suffered and the economy collapsed. The problem is, the president should have seen that coming. He either did not, or preferred to believe Congress would rise above politics in the face of a national crisis. The good news is, Obama is a fast learner. People who underestimate him usually find themselves watching his parade on TV.

Can Barack Obama save us?

The quick answer is no. Ultimately, it probably wouldn’t matter who won the 2008 presidential race. Whomever would be sworn in on January 20th would inherit an unprecedented mess. Their presidency would be set up to fail before it even started, and the opposition party would be seizing every opportunity to blame the new president for either continuing the failed policies that created this economic catastrophe or for trying radical new ideas that made things worse. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Washington, D.C. and that’s how things work. In his first month in office, the new president has made some embarrassing rookie errors. His message of the day has been routinely co-opted by his own Barackness, the president doing small things like working in the Oval Office without a coat—making his “lack of respect” for the “shrine of the presidency” the story of the day. His explanation for not wearing a coat was even worse—it was warm in there, which gave conservationists an opening to criticize him for not setting a good example for fighting greenhouse gases. There is a dress marine posted at the steps to Marine One, the president’s helicopter. As the commander in chief approaches, this dress marine snaps into a salute. From the very establishment of the presidential helicopter, U.S. presidents have walked past this marine, as they walk past virtually every other ceremonially uniformed guard, as if he wasn’t there. But President Obama stopped and extended his hand for a shake, forcing the marine to go against his training and stop saluting long enough to shake the president’s hand, “Hi, Barack Obama,” the president is known to say. Message of the day: the president has no respect for military protocol.

This is the kind of childish atmosphere Barack Obama campaigned to change. His first weeks in office, he’s discovered just how difficult that task might be. His first priority was, as it should be, getting right to work combating the impending financial disaster spreading across America and, therefore, across the globe. The president may have assumed both Democrats and Republicans would be anxious to place politics well on the back burner and get this important work done. Instead, what’s been occurring is immaturity on an epic and unprecedented scale as Democrats use their majority clout to overeat at the buffet, running that pork table on the Republicans whom, the Dems should have realized, have nothing to lose. The Democrats all but dared the Republicans to be obstructionists, and Republicans called the Dems’ bluff by being, yep, obstructionists. All of which seemed to deeply irritate the president, who seemed to publicly chastise only Republicans when, from my chair, the Democrats have been behaving nearly as badly. Instead of a sober coming together to save us, the past weeks have been Romper Room in Washington. And, while it’s easy and fun to fit the Republicans with the black hat, a mature look at the goings-on these past weeks finds immaturity on both sides of the aisle.

All of which made the president look naïve and perhaps weak. He expected, invited, and ultimately demanded that Congress act like grown-ups. It was like the new president just fell off the turnip truck. Congress will only behave like grown-ups when a pistol is pressed against their head. I’m assuming the president assumed Congress realized a gun is, in fact, pressed against their head—the literal dissolution of the American economy. But these folks, on both sides of the aisle, are far pettier than the president likely imagined, These folk, on both sides of the aisle, are looking to position themselves for future elections, and are far more invested in that maneuvering than they are in actually preserving the nation they intend to govern.

There is a way to approach bipartisanism: carry a big stick. Use it on your own, first. The Democratic free-for-all with the president’s stimulus package was bound to provoke Republicans. A more disciplined bill would have given the GOP less to complain about, and would have given the president a bigger stick to whack Republican foot-draggers with. Inviting the Republicans to the table would have seemed to be a generous move, but the Republicans routinely bite the bipartisan hand that pets them. Then they go on Bob Schieffer and whine that the president's efforts—which included hat-in-hand visits to people he could crush with a single phone call—don't meet their definition of "bipartisan" or aren't bipartisan enough. While recognizing the imperative for getting this bill done quickly, I believe the president went about it in a politically naïve fashion, if only in that he gave far too much credit to politicians on both sides for being adults who would not make political hay out of the brink of disaster.

Which suggests the president knows nothing of history. Republicans staunchly opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, designed to help end the Great Depression, an economic disaster ended only by the outbreak of the second world war. There is never a time too inappropriate, a situation too dire, an emergency too great for a politician to use it to his political advantage. They know voters have short memories, and, with nearly two years to go before the next major election cycle, they've little to lose by acting a fool now, as, come 2010, most voters won’t remember what these folks did in 2009. Obama’s seeming lack of guile, his unwillingness or inability to understand that, has left him exposed to a lot of political bushwhacking. The only good news is, Obama is a fast learner. And, people who’ve underestimated him usually find themselves watching his parade on TV.

He’s still using George Bush’s rug. A sunburst pattern designed by former First Lady Laura Bush, even I have to admit it’s a really great-looking rug. But, given the hell and high water the first African American U.S. President has gone through his first three weeks in office, I can’t help but wonder if the rug isn’t some kind of omen. Pre-inauguration, the country held its collective breath as we saw the U.S. economy collapse before our eyes. Two and one-half million—that’s with an “M”—jobs were lost during George W. Bush’s final days in office as the cashier totaled out the tab for eight years of incredulous, ridiculous and irresponsible economic policies, policies the conservative right is now fighting the new president tooth and nail to continue. A comedian last week described Bush’s exit as, “George Bush walking away from a flaming car wreck, tossing Obama the keys, ‘Here ya go, champ.’” And that’s about right. While it shouldn’t amaze me that the Republicans are trying—and succeeding—to blame Barack Obama, of all people, for the mess the country is in, it does amaze me that Obama, in his obvious zeal to change the dynamics of Washington, has allowed them to do it.

In recent days, the president has reluctantly fired back, underlining his refusal to allow his policy to be shaped by the same bankrupt ideas that got us into this mess in the first place, but those words were a very, very long time coming. In Washington, a month is an eternity, and President Obama waited an eternity to find his voice on the subject, extending instead a fistful of fig leaves to people with no conscious and, apparently, no soul. Soulless people who, as I’ve stated many times, intrinsically understand the basic nature of the American public: uninformed, lazy, and thus easily frightened. The Republicans have known, for decades, that Americans vote more out of fear than of hope. They also know that no plan, theirs, Obama’s, anybody’s, will get us out of this mess overnight. Our economic misery will take years, not months, to repair. Barack Obama’s entire term in office will be about un-doing the many messes George Bush, and, by extension, lazy, uninformed America, has created. It is doubtful Obama’s hopeful vision will find much expression as he runs up unprecedented deficits while tying to draw down forces in two unproductive wars. Obama’s vision, Obama’s voice, will have to wait. And the Republicans are already playing games with a nation on the brink of a second Great Depression as they dig in their shoulders for what will certainly be a 2010 and 2012 blame game. Obama promised this, Obama promised that, and he’s not made good on any of those promises! Which misses the point that the new president arrives in office in shackles, the likes of which almost no other president in history has known. George Bush had eight months to screw around and go on vacation before those planes hit the World Trade Center. Obama’s 911 attack occurred on Bush's watch, the former president failing to alert the American public that we'd been in a recession for nearly a year before economists made it official. Obama's is a thankless presidency, a scorched earth left behind by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others.

Obama has also been beset by rookie mistakes, mistakes that have cost him dearly. In his enthusiasm to assemble an all-star cabinet, many holes appeared in the vetting process leading to embarrassing confirmation processes. Obama should have known the Republicans would not thank him for his attempts at bipartisanism but would, instead, return hate for love, exploiting every opportunity to harass and embarrass a president who so publicly and graciously and repeatedly reached out to them—when he had no reason to do so. With majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama has fairly little reason to even answer the phone when a Republican is on the other end, yet he has made a spectacle of himself grinning and gripping with soulless liars who immediately attacked and criticized and blamed and dragged their feet and pouted and whined like children. In a very Christ-like fashion, the new president remains doggedly committed to breaking the sad legacy of gridlock in Washington, continuing his efforts to thaw ice between the two major political parties, but his efforts come across as naïve, most especially in the face of national crisis. Obama wasted a great deal of time, money and personal prestige reaching out to Republicans who crowed, last week, that, by denying the president even a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives, they’d left a huge “goose egg” on the president’s desk, which newly-appointed GOP chairman Michael Steele, the first black man to hold that post, grinned and called, “beautiful.”

There’s absolutely nothing beautiful going on in this economic crisis. The staggering offense of this black man grinning—grinning—about being a hindrance to the speedy aid of suffering people is what makes people hate Washington, which seems to be filled with people woefully out of touch with reality. People whose bellies are full, who are driven around in luxury cars, and whose big worry is the immigration status of their nannies. This is all a game to these people, this brink-of-a-second-Great Depression business. It’s a means to score cheap political points off the naïve new rookie. The GOP are rallying their under-informed, redneck faithful, and Obama is letting them get away with it. Obama’s soft-shoe wooing of the GOP, coupled with serious missteps in his cabinet vetting, have allowed the Republicans to shape the message of the day: this is a rookie president out of his depth. And, much as I’d like to blame the GOP for that, truthfully, the blame belongs inside the West Wing, perhaps with that rug. As important as it is to get control of the economy, the president must first get control of his message.

Before the largest recorded crowd in Washington, DC history, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. badly flubbed the presidential oath of office, an oath many of us—including many children—know virtually by heart. The president-elect, who is a Constitutional scholar, waited patiently before flashing his trademark smile and moving forward with Roberts' reworked oath, figuring, I suppose, that as long as the words were in there, that was all that mattered. The press is spinning the flub as a bad case of nerves on the Chief Justice's part, but given the historic nature of this inauguration, I am quite sure the flub offended millions who'd waited entire lifetimes for that day to come. The least the Chief Justice could have done was practice a little.

I watched the inauguration ceremony, with Aretha’s voice cracking and failing her. Hey, she’s sixty years old and it was ten degrees outside. It either did not occur to her to pre-record her performance, as the classical ensemble did, or she refused, as many old-school artists likely would, insisting on doing the real thing, but it was cold out there. Really cold. Bone-chilling cold. It’s interesting to look closely at photographs of the president’s speech. The black people—with the notable exception of eccentric, Blagojevich-appointed, I-Am-The-Junior-Senator-From-Illinois Roland Burris—sat enraptured, virtually on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, intensely listening to the new president’s first words. The white folk, for the most part, just looked cold. The old Washington politicos seemed disengaged and bored, and former (thank you, Jesus) Vice President Dick Cheney had the inexplicable taste to show up in a Dick Dastardly fedora and X-Men earmuffs. Democratic turncoat Joe Lieberman, whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually saved from political oblivion, actually wore some tasteless, cheap ball cap—something I doubt he’d have done were that John McCain being sworn in.

All things considered, the event was pretty dull. Poet Elizabeth Alexander rattled off a completely incomprehensible bit of business that left me scratching my head wondering what I was listening to. I missed Pastor Rick Warren's invocation but, given the brouhaha surrounding his inclusion, I'm confident most of us were left wondering what the big deal was. Warren apparently left his politics out of the prayer, while The Reverend Joseph Lowery notably did not. Perhaps balancing out the Chief Justice's seeming indifference to the moment, Lowery certainly offended millions with his thinly-veiled gloating, dressed in sheep's wool of homespun aw shucks. It was terribly inappropriate, as Lowery tends to be, and in poor taste. Warren was at least gracious enough to perform the task he'd been asked to perform. Lowery went duck hunting.

The now-former president George W. Bush did not attempt to hide his discomfort with the proceedings, at which his policies and his judgment were the Cinco de Mayo piñata. Most every sentiment expressed from the Capitol steps contained an at least indirect shot at Bush, who sat in coat and scarf, choosing not to pretend it wasn't below freezing outside. The newly sworn-in president, however, delivered his speech without a hat. I'm sure the new president's thermal underwear and body armor helped somewhat, but it sure looked cold out there.

Obama's inaugural address was no "Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For you," but no speech has been since President John F. Kenny uttered those magnificent words in 1961. Instead, Obama's speech was workmanlike, lacking ready applause lines and pretested sound bites. It wasn't a homily but a shift commander addressing factory workers: this is going to be a tough year. Maybe a tough four years. America is a mess, and we all know who messed it up. George W. Bush took the oath of office in January of 2001 with a prosperous nation at peace. Obama assumes the helm of a bankrupt country at war. With the worst yet to come. I imagine the new president chose, in that light, to forego poetry in favor of stoicism: roll up our sleeves, get to work. We can get through it, but only if we get off the sofa, stop blaming Bush and start solving our problems.

“Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” he said. “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.” Recalling a verse from the 1st Book of Corinthians, Obama said, “The time has come to set aside childish things,” and he declared: “Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.”

I remain amused that the Christian right, whom I hold largely responsible for Bush and therefore the mess this country is in, appears to be in mourning, perhaps feeling betrayed by their quasi-standard bearer Warren. I like Warren because he approaches his conservatism in a more pragmatic and inclusive way, which I find more attractive than the harsh rhetoric of Falwell, Dobson and others.

The president lost the media war over his $800 billion stimulus package. The Republicans successfully scared America about it, scaring people being all the GOP is particularly good at, and sold the bald-faced lie that they’d been frozen out of the stimulus negotiations. Frozen out, despite the very public efforts the new president made, over and over, to engage the Republicans and make them part of the process. If the package succeeds—which it can’t help but do; any help coming our way is bound to move the needle at least a little—the Republicans are toast. Rightfully blamed for massive deregulation and other policies which led to this economic collapse, the Republicans are deservedly voiceless and powerless. This has left them with only one option—lying; the tried and true GOP tactic of telling the biggest, most transparently obvious lie that can think of and repeating it over and over and over until it becomes fact by default. Reactionary back-woods lost-in-the-50’s South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham even accused the president—who’s done little else but lobby for his stimulus package since being sworn in—of being “uninvolved” with the stimulus bill. It’s the kind of outrageous nonsense the GOP historically spreads around, lying right to our faces in foolish and childish ways.

Any half-wit with YouTube access can easily disprove the GOP claims. But the Republicans know we aren’t looking. Their main appeal is to low-information voters and disgruntled conservatives still pining away for Gidget and Grampa. No one with functioning brain cells believes President Obama has been asleep at the switch on the stimulus package, it’s just laughably untrue. But that’s the GOP message of the day as millions—with an “M”—of people lose their jobs. As distraught fathers, hitting rock bottom, turn to murder and suicide. As the nation faces the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, these GOP clowns choose to play hardball politics.

For his part, the president seemed amazed that the Republicans would be so transparently political in the face of a national crisis, which revealed a perhaps unsettling naïveté about Obama. His own party actually enabled the Republican showboating by stuffing their many, many pet projects into this stimulus package. To the extent that the Democrats behaved like children, Graham was right: Obama needed to police up his own back yard a lot better. By allowing Speaker of The House Nancy Pelosi—whom I suspect is secretly insane—to pork up the stimulus, Obama pretty much wrote off any real chance at bipartisanship while giving the Republicans an opening to create mischief. A slimmer, more disciplined bill would have made it much harder for House Minority Leader John Boehner and friends to play games with this crisis..

The problem is, the nation doesn’t need a skinny bill. She needs a fat bill. Japan spent $7 trillion repairing its economy when it collapsed in 1990. As big a bill as this is, the president’s stimulus package is probably not even half the size it really needs to be. I believe the Republicans know this as well. They are counting on you not knowing it, so they can dance on a head of a pin and argue about how big the bill is, claiming they can jump-start the economy with a bill roughly half the size. Which misses the point it was these geniuses and their slide rules that got us into this mess in the first place. Obama taking advice from these people is a lot like asking the fox to arrange security for the hen house. Still, the president made very public and very prolonged overtures to his political rivals, who then conspired to, as GOP Chairman Steele put it, lay a “goose egg” on the president’s desk.

It was a gutsy political move on the part of the Republicans, who will either break even or lose big. There is no win in this for them and they know it. They have behaved like barbarians, sucking up to the president and then jamming him, jamming us, for transparently political reasons. Any stimulus package, of any size, will take years, not months, to work. By which time the misery will be widespread while memories fade as to who is to blame for it. This is, essentially, the Republican strategy for regaining power. They have nothing to lose.

The president should have known that, and not invited them to the party in the first place. Alternatively, seeing the results of his costly and time-consuming overtures, the president should visit the wrath of his office upon the Republicans: look, I wanted to be friends. I invited you to partner with me. You’re obviously too stupid to live, so I will now crush you like bugs. Although, to some extent, that’s possibly what the Republicans want. They want the president to own this economic recovery package, counting on public impatience and misery in 2010 to be at a zenith. So much so that the public will vote the Republicans back in just as the stimulus plan finally begins to work. It’s an interesting gamble, but is likely the only viable political path the GOP has.

And, the president should have known that. He should have shot low-budget YouTube commercials with actors and music and humor, explaining both the math and the politics. He should have brought the same fearsome communication tools used in his campaign to bear on behalf of his stimulus plan. Instead, he tried to be a grown up and got handed his hat. Oh, sure, he “won” in the end, but he lost the bigger challenge: changing the tone of debate in Washington. In that struggle, the GOP are running circles around him. And that’s the biggest change the president needs to effect if he plans on getting anything at all done.

Can he save us? Ultimately, saving us is not, in fact, Barack Obama’s job. His job is to lead. To inspire. It is up to us, to each one of us, to do the heavy lifting. To follow through. Surely God can save us, and that faith in God is about to be tested in severe ways. Our president, on the other hand, can only do his best to be a good steward and an honest broker. While it has cost him politically, Barack Obama has certainly passed the honest broker test with flying colors. The rest is up to us..

Christopher J. Priest
15 February 2009

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