Hardened Obama plans new fights

Obama and his aides are plunging ahead on a large and expensive agenda that virtually assures 2009 will be marked by intense partisan battles. Photo: AP

Emboldened by his victory on the stimulus package — but chastened by the pothole-pocked road that got him there — President Barack Obama and his aides are plunging ahead on a large and expensive agenda that virtually assures 2009 will be marked by intense partisan battles about the size and role of government. 

White House aides say they have concluded that Obama too frequently lost control of the debate and his own image during the stimulus battle. By this reckoning, the story became too much about failed efforts at bipartisanship and Washington deal-making, and not enough about the president’s public salesmanship. 

For Obama’s next act, the program is the same as he has been planning for months: New Deal-style plans to rescue struggling homeowners and rewrite regulations on the financial markets, plus a budget proposal that lays the groundwork for sweeping health care reform. 

But the strategy to promote these items is getting an emergency overhaul. Obama plans to travel more and campaign more in an effort to pressure lawmakers with public support, rather than worrying about whether he can win over Republican votes in Congress. Officials suggested that the new, more partisan tone Obama embraced last week in his speech before House Democrats at their retreat and continued at his news conference Monday was what he should have been doing all along.

Meeting with reporters Thursday night, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said that there were times during the stimulus debate when “I don’t think we were sharp about the benefits” of the legislation, letting Washington process dominate the message. 

Reflecting as “somebody who has been in this town,” he observed that “there’s an insatiable appetite for the notion of bipartisanship here and we allowed that to get ahead of ourselves.”

But Emanuel said that they recognized they had overdone their initial outreach to Republicans and had offered “a sharp message for the last week.”

For now, the hard-charging chief of staff added, “He has an open hand, but he has a very firm handshake.” 

Translation: Yes, the president will continue to do obligatory outreach to the GOP, but he’s not going to be burned again by an out-of-power and toothless minority for the sake of appearances. 

This may be the only practical course. Obama’s call for compromise and change in how Washington does its business was quickly rebuffed by both parties in Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans have political needs and authentic ideological priorities that matter a lot more to them than whether Washington is a civil place. 

Implicit in Obama’s lessons-learned appraisal from the stimulus battle is also a new realism about his own party. His initial decision to give House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the liberal House Democratic caucus so much leeway in drafting the stimulus bill allowed Obama to be tarred with some of the most controversial items in the package. Going on the road means he is able to soar over Pelosi’s head as well as Republicans. 

The Washington climate, which led to a party-line vote on the stimulus, has big political implications: It means that Obama will have sole ownership — whether that means credit or blame — for all the massive changes in government he envisions over the coming year. 

For the near term, Obama’s public agenda will keep its overwhelming emphasis on domestic matters, even as many of the most fundamental questions are in foreign policy. Within the administration, urgent reviews of Iraq and Afghanistan policies are underway. But the West Wing itself has been preoccupied, with Emanuel himself taking the lead on legislative arm-twisting on the stimulus vote. 

The president’s next few agenda items will be grouped as “getting the country’s financial house in order” — a plan to help struggling homeowners, financial regulatory reform and the budget.

“Financial regulatory and housing are the other … legs of the economic stool,” Emanuel said. Looking ahead, he also mentioned stem-cell research and renewable standards on energy, Obama continues to plan for year-one action on health care, starting with his budget request, although officials announce that his ambitions have been set back by the withdrawal of Tom Daschle, who was to be his White House health czar and secretary of Health and Human Services. 

After a Valentine’s weekend getaway to Chicago, Obama will sign the stimulus package early next week and then make his first trip to the West, with stops planned in Colorado and Arizona. He’ll also leave the country for the first time as president, heading over the border Thursday for a one-day trip to Ottawa for meetings with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other Canadian officials. 

The following week, the president will head to Capitol Hill to speak to a joint session of Congress, then will present his budget for 2010. On Feb. 23, the day before the address to Congress, the president will convene a “fiscal responsibility summit” in Washington, most likely at the White House, with top administration officials, members of Congress and outside groups to discuss entitlement and long-term budget issues. 

“There will be a lot of things [going on] slowly but concurrently,” a White House official said. “Senate] Finance will start working on health care, [House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry] Waxman will start working on energy, [House Financial Services Committee Chairman] Barney Frank will start working on regulatory reform.” 

Capitol Hill Democrats expect an energy bill to be fast-tracked, since Waxman wants to move ahead on a comprehensive energy and global warming bill. The White House may only pursue a lesser initial package dealing with such matters as funding the transmission grid. 

David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said the American people view Obama “even more strongly now than they did before,” because has responded to a “crisis of leadership” in the government and the corporate worlds — “a sense that no one was in charge, no one was trying to course-correct.” 

During his Thursday roundtable with print reporters, Emanuel pointed proudly to the “set of accomplishments” from Obama’s first three weeks, but acknowledged: “There are things both on the inside and the outside I would have changed.” 

“Inside, being how we would have handled certain negotiations,” he explained, noting that given the size and speed of a bill with “these many moving parts, there are differences [of] interpretation.” 

Obama looked liberated and at ease when he finally took to the road this week, prompting the banner headline “Salesman-in-chief” in his hometown Chicago Tribune. “We’ve got to get him out of that White House,” a top adviser said, listing “some very valuable lessons” learned from the stimulus fight. “He’s happier, he’s better, he’s more effective. The inside game is important, but it’s actually not where the success of his presidency is going to come.” 

Officials say that although Obama won’t necessarily travel every week, as was suggested in one briefing, he will continue to be out of the White House a lot. “He feels best, he is at his best, and our agenda is the most popular and at its best when it’s getting sold by the popular in the administration and the person who connects with voters,” one official said. 

A longtime adviser contends that Obama “actually didn’t spend a lot of political capital” on the stimulus, “because at the end of the day, he wasn’t on the phone begging Democrats to vote for it.” The adviser added: “He’s going to get credit for getting some stuff done at a time when people are just desperate to feel like something is happening.”