Congressional Democrats are firing a surprising number of unexpectedly sharp brush-back pitches at President-elect Obama and his staff over policy plans and personnel picks, making him look embattled during what was to be a triumphant debut week in Washington.
The honeymoon isn’t over – the president-elect remains widely popular, even among some Republicans – and his inauguration on Jan. 20 will be a signature event in the lifetime of most Americans, giving his opening days a greater lift and pop than any president since at least Ronald Reagan.
But as Obama buckled down his week as a shadow government across Lafayette Park from the waning one in the White House, Democrats hit him with daily fast balls reflecting two realities: His team is smart but not perfect, and Democrats are supportive but not supine.
* Obama ended his troubled search for CIA director by naming Leon Panetta. The immediate response: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) fired off a statement of disapproval, giving a negative tilt to most coverage of the pick.
* Obama floated his plan to name TV-star Dr. Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers didn’t even wait for the official announcement before leading a public campaign to kill the nomination. Gupta "lacks the relevant experience," Conyers wrote to colleagues.
* As Obama makes plans to roll out a sweeping economic plan, Majority Leader Harry Reid gave interviews with Politico and The Hill newspaper and made clear he won't take marching orders from Obama. "I don't work for" Obama, he told us.
*Even before Obama’s plan was formally unveiled, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made plain her displeasure with parts of Obama’s emerging fiscal plan, which she believes does not move fast enough to raise taxes. “I couldn't be more clear,” she said Thursday at her weekly news conference. “Put me down as one in favor of repeal [of the Bush tax cuts] as soon as possible.”
* Finally, once the package was unveiled, Obama's adviser got a frosty response to some provisions from Senate Democrats, who were kind enough to go public with their concerns. “I just don’t think it works. I don’t think that’s going to give much lift to the economy, as well intended as it is,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, told Politico's David Rogers.
On Friday morning, Obama’s only headline on the front page of The New York Times after his biggest speech since the election: “Senate Allies Fault Obama on Stimulus.”
Senate Republican leadership aide Don Stewart mischievously circulated a compilation of morning headlines pointing to rifts on the other side.
“That's the glass half empty view,” said a senior Obama official. “The reality is that the bipartisan consensus on the need to act, and on the broad framework of the plan, is entirely unprecedented. We will work with members to work through these issues.”
Obama advisers say they're keeping perspective, recognizing that some of the flak is real, and some of it is the press looking for — and playing up — trouble.
People shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of these scratchy moments. In the end, Obama will likely get all or much of what he wants in these cases. Obama advisers acknowledge they botched the Panetta rollout, quickly apologized to Feinstein, and Panetta now seems virtually certain to get confirmed. Gupta might face a hazing from some Democrats but it's doubtful his nomination will be stopped.
Congressional egos are a Washington constant. Obama will face constant pushback from Reid and Pelosi who are just as eager as the president-elect to assert and use their newly enhanced power. But the three leaders get along well - and Obama's pick for director of congressional relations is getting rave reviews on Capitol Hill for keeping most people in the loop.
The details of the economic recovery plan, meanwhile, were always going to be tricky. Every senator has his or her own ideas for tinkering with the plan, making tension inevitable. Obama should be concerned about growing resistance on the left to his big tax cut plan, but not even Republicans are anticipating the economic package, whatever its final shape and size, will be delayed much beyond mid-February.
Still, this week served as a powerful reminder for the challenges ahead—many of them inside his own party.