By NY Times Op-Ed Columnist BOB HERBERT
The president was taking heat for the tax problems of Tom Daschle, Timothy Geithner and other appointees and nominees. Liberal supporters of the president were upset that he was making such a high-profile effort to get Republicans to climb aboard his stimulus package bandwagon.
Self-styled middle-of-the-roaders were snarling that Mr. Obama was not doing enough bipartisan outreach, even as Republicans on Capitol Hill were attacking his economic package with the kind of venom usually reserved for the handiwork of Satan.
Mr. Obama was called a hypocrite, dismissed as both craven and politically naïve and taken to task for being too much in the public eye.
The president was even accused — oh, my goodness — of working in the Oval Office without his suit jacket on. And what was Mr. Obama doing as this chaos and tension and criticism swirled about him? Not surprisingly, keeping a level head.
Mr. Daschle, who was supposed to be the administration’s point person on health care reform, withdrew his nomination as secretary of health and human services, and Mr. Obama promptly took the blame for the foul-up. “I’ve got to own up to my mistake,” he said.
Polls showed that this went over very well with the public.
After making every effort — and failing — to generate significant G.O.P. support for the stimulus package, the president ratcheted up his rhetoric, pointing to the stunning job losses in January and sharply criticizing the Republicans’ obstructionist tactics. On Friday, a weakened but still enormous stimulus bill was agreed upon in the Senate, a crucial advance for Mr. Obama.
On Monday, he was on the road, making the case for his stimulus bill in Elkhart, Ind., which is enduring Depression-levels of joblessness and is desperate for federal assistance. Speaking to a crowded town-hall-style meeting, Mr. Obama said: “Endless delay or paralysis in Washington in the face of this crisis will only bring deepening disaster. I can tell you that doing nothing is not an option.”
The crowd cheered and supported him enthusiastically throughout his appearance.
There is always a tendency to underestimate Barack Obama. We are inclined in the news media to hyperventilate over every political or policy setback, no matter how silly or insignificant, while Mr. Obama has shown again and again that he takes a longer view.
There was no way, for example, that the Daschle flap was going to derail the forward march of a man who had survived the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fiasco. It’s early, but there are signs that Mr. Obama may be the kind of president who is incomprehensible to the cynics among us — one who is responsible and mature, who is concerned not just with the short-term political realities but also the long-term policy implications.
He has certainly handled himself much better than some of the clowns carrying leadership banners for the G.O.P. Michael Steele, the new Republican Party chairman, could barely contain his glee over the fact that no Republicans voted for the stimulus package in the House. “The goose egg that you laid on the president’s desk was just beautiful,” he said.
“This bill stinks,” said Lindsey Graham of South Carolina during the Senate debate on the package.
Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, made it clear that his party was committed to the low road when he talked about picking up pointers from the Taliban.
I’m not joking. “Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban,” said Mr. Sessions, in an interview with Hotline, which is part of NationalJournal.com.
The simple truth is that most Republican politicians would like Mr. Obama to fail because that is their ticket to a quick return to power. I think the president is a more formidable opponent than they realize.
Mr. Obama is like a championship chess player, always several moves ahead of friend and foe alike. He’s smart, deft, elegant and subtle. While Lindsey Graham was behaving like a 6-year-old on the Senate floor and Pete Sessions was studying passages in his Taliban handbook, Mr. Obama and his aides were assessing what’s achievable in terms of stimulus legislation and how best to get there.
I’d personally like to see a more robust stimulus package, with increased infrastructure spending and fewer tax cuts. But the reality is that Mr. Obama needs at least a handful of Republican votes in the Senate to get anything at all done, and he can’t afford to lose this first crucial legislative fight of his presidency.
The Democrats may succeed in bolstering their package somewhat in conference, but I think Mr. Obama would have been satisfied all along to start his presidency off with an $800 billion-plus stimulus program.