Monday, February 9, 2009

This would be a good time not to panic

Finally - FINALLY! someone in the news media gets Barack Obama. At long last. Not too surprisingly, it's Bob Herbert.

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.
The parallels between Obama and Reagan occasionally bear revisiting. I think liberals still underestimate Reagan, even after he's long dead. Conservatives are going to be underestimating Obama for a very long time. That, of course, is fine with me.

As strong as the parallels with Reagan are - consistently underestimated by opponents, confounding cynics, radically transforming political assumptions - the contrasts with George W. Bush are just as striking. I love Herbert's description of Obama as inscrutable to cynics because he is responsible and mature, capable of thinking about policy in the long-term. Bush, of course, is none of these, but many people have not yet made the adjustment from thinking about Bush to thinking about Obama. It's actually not that unusual for a political leader to be mature and responsible. Much as I didn't like her, that's a good description of Maggie Thatcher.

I've read several columns and blog posts worrying about Obama's agenda, his momentum, his ability to push through his program. The man has been president for three weeks. He's got at least three years, eleven months, and one week to go. I'm not interested in being on an emotional rollercoaster for that entire time.

This would be a good time not to panic. Obama won a decisive victory. He has large majorities in Congress. The last time we had a Democratic president with majorities in the House and Senate was when Clinton was first elected in 92. Then the Republican took control of Congress in 1994, completely blindsiding Clinton, and making like very, very difficult for him. The Republicans are not going to do that to Obama. They are not going to retake either the House or Senate for a very long time.

Eyes on the prize, folks. Obama and the Dems compromised to get the stimulus through the Senate, but that's normal. Republicans fought it as hard as they did because they know that this is not an ordinary piece of legislation, or even an ordinary stimulus package. With this bill, Obama achieves what Reagan did with the Kemp-Roth bill in 1981 - he resets the priorities of government. When Reagan cut taxes, he made that the defining issue for the government, and Democrats could mostly just react. By spending a huge amount of money to get things done, Obama has accomplished a shift of similarly tectonic proportions. Yes, there are some tax cuts in the package, but the emphasis is on using the government's power to create jobs, solve problems, get things done.

With this package, Obama changed the terms of the discussion. It is no longer "should the government intervene," but "how should the government intervene." This is one of the first manifestations of Obama's victory. Republicans are simply terrified.

But Democrats should not be. There will be many, many more such manifestations of Obama's victory to come. Obama knows what he is doing, and he is - once again, the beautiful contrast with W. - capable of changing course quickly. Tom Daschle's tax problems got a lot of publicity because there wasn't much else to talk about. Once the stimulus package passes, and money starts to flow, and projects start to be funded, and potholes are filled, the terms of the conversation will shift again, and this time it will be to Obama's turf. Republicans are hoping that the stimulus package won't work because they hope Obama fails - because they are scared of what will happen if he succeeds. Which is why they are panicking. Which is why Democrats shouldn't.

Bob Herbert is willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, cynicism isn't always the best approach when dealing with Obama. Mature and responsible adults are not all that uncommon in America - there are millions of them. Many of whom see themselves in Obama.

This would be a good time not to panic. You know what other times would be good times not to panic? Every day for the next four to eight years.

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