WASHINGTON (AP) —Welcome to Washington, Mr. President-elect.
Just two weeks before Inauguration Day, congressional Democrats have stalled Barack Obama’s economic recovery legislation while his pick for Commerce secretary, Bill Richardson, has withdrawn under an ethics cloud. It’s a hard dose of reality to swallow at the threshold to the White House.
While these are hiccups in what has otherwise been a smooth transition, Obama’s response suggests that he is a patient and pragmatic politician, willing to trade time for consensus on legislation and to jettison allies who jeopardize his carefully built reformist image.
The next president of the United States understands that the power of his office has its limits, even in crisis. He knows, too, how weary voters are of the seamy, transactional side of politics as outlined in the cases involving Richardson and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich – the latter a “pay for play” scandal that may yet reach into Obama’s inner circle.
“These are the first nicks in the president-elect’s armor for changing the way that Washington works,” said Republican strategist Joe
Gaylord. “What might be happening is the rude awakening to the fact that talking about change and actually accomplishing it are two different things.”
Gaylord said he wasn’t implying that Obama or his plans are tarnished. But the GOP strategist, like some Democratic counterparts interviewed Monday, said this week’s episodes are a mere preview of the challenges that lay ahead for Obama.
Not since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 has an incoming president faced a plate so full: A global economic crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip, an auto industry on the brink of collapse, a soaring national debt and the lingering threat of terrorism.
And then there are the politics of modern Washington. Hours before his plane landed in the nation’s capital on Sunday for his pre-inaugural move from Chicago, Democratic congressional leaders put Obama on notice that his multibillion-dollar economic plan would not be ready before he takes office.
Obama visited Capitol Hill on Monday to press his case with lawmakers. He wanted voters to see him on the case, too.
“The economy is very sick,” Obama said.
He promised to work hard this month to get the jobs-and-spending legislation to his desk shortly after taking office.
In fact, pre-inauguration passage was an unrealistic goal set by his team. Obama should have dampened expectations weeks ago.
“Big policy changes are difficult to enact quickly,” said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “But it’s hard to call this a setback. It will be an impressive feat if he passes $850 billion in new spending in the first month of his administration.”
What the development does suggest is that Obama is determined – at least for now – to take the time and energy required to pass a major spending bill with what amounts to a bipartisan consensus in this polarized capital.
“His style of governing – at least how he professes to govern – is about accommodation and communication which slows things down even when you have big majorities,” said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. “If we learned one thing from the campaign it’s that Obama has a tremendous sense of pacing and timing.”
Except when it comes to Richardson.
The New Mexico governor abandoned his nomination under pressure of a federal investigation into how his political donors landed a lucrative state transportation contract. Obama’s team and Richardson knew of the investigation when the Commerce post was offered in November.
What changed? The political atmosphere. While there is no public evidence that Obama or his team had anything to do with peddling his Senate seat – the accusation facing Blagojevich – the Illinois case has shone an unwelcome spotlight on the political system that gave birth to Obama’s career. It raises again the questions about Obama’s ties to questionable figures such as convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko.
Obama’s chief of staff for the White House, Rahm Emanuel, had talked to Blagojevich and the governor’s chief of staff and had recommended another Obama aide, Valerie Jarrett, for Obama’s Senate seat, according to an internal review ordered by Obama.
Those actions are not illegal, and Emanuel still appears to have Obama’s confidence.
But nobody should underestimate Obama’s quick hook. During the campaign, top adviser Jim Johnson was let go over loans he received on favorable terms from a company embroiled in the nation’s mortgage crisis.
Foreign policy adviser Samantha Power left Obama’s campaign after a Scottish newspaper reported that she had called Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton – then Obama’s top rival – “a monster.” Obama friend and pastor Jeremiah Wright? Gone.
Like any good politician, Obama knows how to cut his losses. He must be most diligent when the promise of “new politics” rubs up against the realities of the old.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ron Fournier is Washington Bureau chief for The Associated Press.