Old Washington Getting Older by the Minute

Washington Matters

Old Washington Getting Older by the Minute

The old way of doing things inside the Beltway isn't back -- it never left. Worse, we're less than two months into a new administration and time for serious and significant change may already be running out.

Congressional Republicans are offering up attack points and policy proposals so stale and moldy that they resemble the weeks old bread heel I found while making a school lunch today. But if President Obama doesn't wake up and grab his party by the scruff of the neck soon, that piece of bread will begin to look fresh and appetizing to a public whose patience is not eternal.

Obama should be given a bit of a break as he and his team settle in, and polls clearly suggest he's getting that break. But he also must act boldly -- in fact some, like liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, argue that he's not being bold enough. But an important part of being bold is having strong and clear principles -- like his stated goals of making Washington more responsible -- and then sticking to them.

Conservative to moderate Democrats and three GOP senators, bought Obama's argument that the huge stimulus package was an urgent necessity, in part because he pledged to follow with more fiscal discipline. So when his party began moving a massive catchall spending bill for this year through Congress, Obama  needed to pounce all over it and demand that it be cut and that earmarks be carefully vetted and slashed. The argument by Democratic leaders that this was essentially last year's bill and represented broad consensus might fly in ordinary times, but when Washington desperately needs to show that it can and will change, the bill is a disgrace.

Even more disgraceful was the administration's embrace of that argument. (Peter Orszag, the Obama administration's budget director and supposed fiscal hawk, put it this way Sunday on ABC's This Week: "This is last year's business. We just need to move on.") Pass a bill with a kajillion earmarks and huge increases in spending that will become the new bottom line for all budgets to come so we can all "move on"?  It's a laughable and nearly desperate request for the country to bury its head in the sand less than two months after Obama began his presidency with a sharp and appropriate rebuke in his inaugural address that we had done just that for too long -- and that he would put a stop to it. Convenient hypocrisy like that is precisely the type of thing that will cost Obama and Democrats the support of centrist and independent voters who will be desperately needed as far tougher issues come down the pike.

Obama missed the opportunity to halt this parade where money is being tossed around like plastic beads on Mardi Gras. But he can make sure he doesn't repeat that mistake by working harder to cultivate ties with centrists and moderates of both parties. The first step would be to reach out to Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who opposed the spending bill, and condemn talk by Senate Democrats who want punish the pair for opposing the measure.

Given that Democratic leaders are showing no restraint and that many Democrats are talking about balking at some key Obama proposals, a showdown similar to the one that should have happened over this bill is all but unavoidable. Obama should force it quickly so he can identify and work with pragmatic and centrist members of both parties in both chambers who are willing to cross their leaders when principle and common sense call for it. He obviously is going to need their help staring down the old bulls of his own party from here on out.