Obama's Bad Week Wasn't All Bad

Washington Matters

Obama's Bad Week Wasn't All Bad

Sure, President Obama lost some talented members of his team this week and learned that Senate Republicans still have enough power and contrariness to make life difficult on Capitol Hill. It turns out that Obama is pretty much like the rest of us, skilled and flawed and as inclined as anyone to try to cut corners to keep things on course. That's good. Now we can take him off that pedestal we put him on and lower our expectations. Being knocked down a peg or two can help a new president recognize the limits and realities of his powers.

But the loud thwacks we hear over his failed appointments and provisions of the stimulus shouldn't overwhelm the fact that things look and feel quite differently than they did Jan. 19, 2009.

Perhaps the most startling moment of the week was Obama's decision to turn a parade of televised interviews intended to tout his economic package into a series of frank apologies for picking and backing Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer, who was to be the government's first chief performance officer. First, after at least 16 years (two very long administrations) of becoming accustomed to spin, weasel-wording and the failure to simply accept responsibility for mistakes, it was refreshing to hear Obama's direct and unadorned "I messed up, I screwed up." There was no hedging, harrumphing  or finger-pointing. More important, Obama was straightforward about what it was that he screwed up so badly: That those picks were entirely at odds with his themes of returning responsibility to government and trying to drain some of the corrosive influence of money out of the system. "I don't want my administration to send the message that there are two sets of rules," he said.

When was the last time a politician simply acknowledged that his actions were at odds with his words, unless, perhaps, an election or a shortened prison term depended upon it?

 The corrupting influence of money has grown steadily over the years from a mere embarrassment to a crisis in confidence, and Obama won in part because of  his promise to clean things up. And that's another big and serious change in town -- Obama's restrictions on lobbying by top officials before and after their service is far from perfect, but it is the first serious effort to tackle such influence head on. Even though lobbying was not directly at issue, Obama's apology sent notice that he takes his pledge and the appearance of potential conflicts of interest seriously.

Obama is also making good on what is and will be one of his most difficult promises to keep: Changing the tone of political discourse and the hyperpartisanship that has led to virtual legislative paralysis. The furor over Daschle's withdrawal drowned out one of Obama's most significant moves: Getting conservative GOP Sen. Judd Gregg to captain the Commerce Department. Gregg's fiscal policy is far to the right of Obama's, but he is also one of the most knowledgeable people in town about the federal budget and the intersection of government and business. His nomination could signal a genuine seriousness about setting the government's fiscal house in order and recognizing how important the needs of business are to economic recovery.

Obama is taking a bipartisan approach to the stimulus package by meeting repeatedly with Republicans and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, but so far to little effect. His frustration showed Thursday night when he gave his toughest speech yet in defense of the package and its spending proposals and criticized Republicans perpetual reliance on tax cuts. That's fine, too. Governance requires carrots and sticks. And Obama used the speech to House Democrats to remind them that ultimate success for the package will mean working with the Senate. Digging in heels will be counterproductive and ultimately unacceptable.

It's very early -- too early -- to make any judgments about Obama, and the missteps make clear that things can just as easily go wrong as go right as his presidency unfolds. But so far Obama is fulfilling his side of the bargain and actually making Washington, at least for now, feel a little less greasy to the touch and a little more serious than a middle school playground.