One of the reasons Barack Obama is president is because when the U.S. economy was falling off a cliff, he was the adult in the room, and John McCain wasn't. When the stock market imploded in September 2008, McCain, who had just earned a shoot-from-the-hip reputation for picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, flailed. He couldn't decide what policies to back. He put his campaign on hold, then quickly reversed himself. He was clueless. Obama, on the other hand, eschewed the drama, joined the chorus of convention in favor of the too-hastily-constructed bailout for Wall Street, and came across as a steady and mature fellow. Obama, the rookie senator, looked like a leader. McCain, the longtime lawmaker and Vietnam veteran, looked like a desperate nervous Nellie. It was perhaps the most decisive moment in the general campaign.
Obama is now heading toward something of a repeat showdown -- but not with McCain, whose crankiness
is undermining his influence. The president's face-off will be with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the GOP leader in the Senate. And, if Obama gets his wish, the issue again will be: Who's the grown-up here?
Compare the recent remarks of the two men. At his victory-lap press conference
on Wednesday, Obama -- pointing to the bipartisan wins he achieved this week with the ratification of the START nuclear arms treaty, the passage of the 9/11 responders health bill, and the repeal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy -- repeatedly talked about the need for D's and R's to work together in Washington and find compromises -- even if such compromises, such as the tax-cut deal Obama struck with the GOPers, contain provisions that are profoundly distasteful to one side or the other. "If there's any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it's that we are not doomed to endless gridlock," he said. "We've shown, in the wake of the November elections, that we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together."
Obama positioned himself as a leader who wants to make government function, who's willing to search for common ground with his political foes. His message: I'm so dedicated to addressing the challenges facing the nation that I'll even work with Republicans. Noting that rock-'em/sock-'em debates on spending issues are coming soon, Obama repurposed the sales pitch that played well with independent voters in 2008: we can on occasion put aside the bickering and bridge the ideological divide in order to govern. "We don't have to agree on a hundred percent to get things done that enhance the lives of families all across America," the president said. "And if we can sustain that spirit, then regardless of how the politics play out in 2012, the American people will be better for it. And that's my ultimate goal."
Now let's check in on life on Planet McConnell. On Monday -- while Congress was contending with a series of important bills -- McConnell was making threats. Speaking of the Senate Democrats, he said
, "There's much for them to be angst-ridden about. If they think it's bad now, wait till next year." The fellow who has engineered a record-breaking number of filibusters was not talking about cooperation and seeking common turf with Obama and the Democrats. McConnell, whose Republicans will still be in the minority within the Senate next year, was immodestly acting like a bully and aiming for capitulation: "If the president is willing to do things that we believe in, I don't think we're going to say, 'No, Mr. President, we're not going to do this any longer because you're now with us.' "
In an article
for the conservative National Review magazine that was posted on Wednesday, McConnell went further in demonstrating he was not serious about crafting policy solutions. He derided Obama's efforts to rescue the economy as nothing more than handing "over more of our freedoms -- and more of our paychecks -- to Washington." But Obama cut taxes for 98 percent of Americans -- prior to the recent tax-cut compromise, which will lower taxes for everyone, including the super-rich. And McConnell claimed that Obama and the Democrats in the past two years "were more interested in extending the size and scope of government than they were in addressing the nation's immediate economic problems." This is more crazy-talk. Does he really believe Obama rescued the auto industry because he wanted to boost the power of the federal government, not because he wanted to save jobs? McConnell is playing the most cynical of politics. The Congressional Budget Office says that Obama's stimulus saved or created up to 3.5 million jobs. McConnell (and other GOPers) keep ignoring that critical fact, while only offering one mantra: cut taxes and spending.
With such comments, McConnell seems to care more about talking points and scoring points than about collaboration and honest debate. Granted, that approach worked damn well for the Republicans in the midterm elections. And it's hard to argue with such success. But now that the elections are done, the public may expect a bit more from the triumphant Republicans. A CNN poll taken last week showed that 56 percent of the public approved of how Obama was handling issues in the lame duck session, compared to only 42 percent who approved of the GOP in this time period.
My hunch is that Obama scored so well in that poll because he's acting like the grown-up in Washington. He's dealing with a difficult political reality and achieving results. The months ahead will be full of challenges, especially with a Republican House led by John Boehner, who has yet to signal his grand strategy for the coming year. The issues and circumstances that arise may be tougher terrain for Obama than those of the glorious lame-duck era. But the president is heading into the second half of this presidential term with force and poise. Next to trash-talking Republicans, he does seem mature and responsible. That won't hurt Obama, as he fights in 2011 for his policy priorities and for his presidency.
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