Washington Matters


Short Obama Honeymoon Is a Good Thing


Pick up a newspaper or (worse) turn on cable news and you'll hear a ton of reports about how Democrats in Congress are giving Obama a hard time even before he's been sworn in. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insists he doesn't "work for Obama." Joe Biden is excluded from the weekly Senate Democratic lunch. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she doesn't want the administration wooing Democrats behind her back.

These, of course, are territorial markers. Lawmakers, including Democrats (especially Democrats), are intent on reasserting their constitutional role as an equal branch of government after eight years on the sidelines. If Dick Cheney were becoming president, this would be a sign of major battles to come. But Obama seems to welcome it, even encourage it. So far, at least, he's treating Congress the way it wants to be treated.

It's true enough that Obama had no honeymoon with Congress -- not if you define a honeymoon as a period of unrealistic bliss where no one can do wrong. But skipping the honeymoon is no big deal if it means an earlier start to the constructive give-and-take of a healthy marriage.

One reason for the early dose of reality is that Obama has had to move with unusual speed to take charge even before he has official duties. If this were a normal January, Congress would still be in recess and the president-elect would be trying on his morning suit and rehearsing his speech. But these aren't normal times and no one recognizes that more than Obama. He has already picked over 100 key aides and is heavily engaged in negotiating major legislation with congressional leaders. No wonder there's a little friction.

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Honeymoons only last until decisions are made. Then someone is left unhappy. That's what we're seeing now. And right now the unhappiness is largely on the Democratic side because most Democrats have eight years of pent-up hopes. Republicans are gleeful and the news media, which thrive on controversy and any mistakes by those in power, are having a field day. But in the end it doesn't amount to anything more than good government, a restoration of a balance of power that's been missing.

Take Obama's plan to give employers a $3,000 tax credit for creating a new job. He promised it in his campaign so he was obliged to include it in his stimulus proposal. But when Democrats balked, he dropped it. This is now on every pundit's list of major setbacks for Obama. That's hooey. The job credit was a dumb idea, virtually unworkable. Even business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce expressed no enthusiasm for it. Obama, who seems capable of separating important issues from minor ones, wisely jettisoned it. That got rid of a bad idea and won him some points with senators for being able to listen and compromise.

Then there's the phony brouhaha over the choice of Leon Panetta to run the CIA. Much was made of the initial opposition of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, on grounds he had little direct experience (not to mention that Obama's team failed to tell her in advance). Much less was made of her turnaround after discussing the choice with Obama's team. She's now a supporter.

If this is what qualifies for quarreling Democrats, I'm all for it. Seems to me like a sensible way to conduct business -- proposals, counter-proposals, debate and compromise, with an outcome that's going to most often be better than the original idea. Let's have more of it.

 




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