The Clock Is Ticking

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009 10:52 AM

It is well past time to ask the question: What has Barack Obama really accomplished as president, anyway?

I mean, the inaugural speech was nice, the big crowds behaved themselves, the first couple danced at 10 balls and Michelle's dresses are getting pretty good reviews. But the economy is still in the deep freeze, we've still got troops in Iraq and global warming continues apace. How long are we supposed to wait for the change we've been waiting for?

Think I'm being a tad impatient? Well, the coverage has been so positive in the past week that you almost got the impression Obama would solve all of America's problems while fixing the college football playoff system and discovering a cure for cancer.

Expectations are sky-high, which is why I believe Obama chose to deliver a sober, almost grim inaugural address rather than an uplifting peroration. Government is a hard, tough slog. Passing legislation, getting programs to work, is often a process measured in inches. A president can inspire, can use the bully pulpit, but when banks aren't making loans, people are losing their homes and the Detroit automakers are teetering on the brink, speeches aren't enough.

Obama dived into substance yesterday by issuing executive orders on ethics and the closing of Gitmo. These are low-hanging fruit, in that the president can act unilaterally, but important nonetheless.

A lot of people, and not just conservatives, think the media have rolled over for Obama. I've certainly been critical of the coverage at times. But what's past is prologue. If journalists don't start holding the 44th president accountable -- in the same way the left wanted us to hold George W. Bush accountable -- we will have defaulted on our mission. It will be bad for the country, and bad for Obama. He didn't run as a black candidate. He ran as a politician who happened to be black. And so our journalism must be color-blind as well.

I did a double-take yesterday, seeing the first photos of Obama in the Oval Office, in that familiar chair. There is something undeniably uplifting about that, given our history. But the question now is what he can produce from behind that desk.

In the Wall Street Journal, Juan Williams warns against a racial double standard:

"If his presidency is to represent the full power of the idea that black Americans are just like everyone else -- fully human and fully capable of intellect, courage and patriotism -- then Barack Obama has to be subject to the same rough and tumble of political criticism experienced by his predecessors. To treat the first black president as if he is a fragile flower is certain to hobble him. It is also to waste a tremendous opportunity for improving race relations by doing away with stereotypes and seeing the potential in all Americans.

"Yet there is fear, especially among black people, that criticism of him or any of his failures might be twisted into evidence that people of color cannot effectively lead. That amounts to wasting time and energy reacting to hateful stereotypes. It also leads to treating all criticism of Mr. Obama, whether legitimate, wrong-headed or even mean-spirited, as racist.

"This is patronizing. Worse, it carries an implicit presumption of inferiority. Every American president must be held to the highest standard. No president of any color should be given a free pass for screw-ups, lies or failure to keep a promise . . .

"There is a dangerous trap being set here. The same media people invested in boosting a black man to the White House as a matter of history have set very high expectations for him. When he disappoints, as presidents and other human beings inevitably do, the backlash may be extreme."

On a different track, Politico's Jim VandeHei and John Harris lay out reasons for skepticism.

"Amid all these high hopes, it may seem needlessly sour to point out why expectations must be kept in check," the duo write, then offer "seven reasons to be skeptical of Obama's chances -- and the Washington establishment he now leads." Here's a sampling:

"The genius fallacy. There is no disputing Obama has built a Cabinet of sharp and experienced public officials. His staff, especially on national security and economic matters, is often praised as brilliant -- and that's by Republicans. But recent history teaches us to be wary of the larger-than-life Washington figures supposedly striding across history's stage. Consider the economy. Everyone seems to agree Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner are smart, vastly qualified to manage and repair the economy. Everyone was saying the exact same things about the two economic geniuses of the 1990s: Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan. Now Rubin has been reduced to making excuses for his involvement in high-risk investments and for helping oversee the demise of Citigroup, which lost $10 billion in the past three months alone. The onetime oracular Greenspan has admitted to Congress that his once-revered economic philosophy had 'a flaw,' and many blame him for turning a blind eye to the housing bubble . . .

"Words, words, words . . . Obama seems to have a different view of the presidency. He thinks that the right decisions can be reached by putting reasonable and enlightened people together and reaching a consensus. He believes his job as president is to educate and inspire, largely matters of style. He knows he is good with words. He knows he has great style. So that's why he projects exceptional confidence in his ability to do the job. We don't know yet how justified Obama is in his self-confidence -- or how naive. . . .

"The watchdogs are dozing. The big media companies that once invested in serious accountability journalism are shells of their former selves. The Tribune Co. -- in other words, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune -- has slashed its Washington staff by more than half. Newspaper chains such as Cox are fleeing D.C. altogether. The end result: There are few reporters in this country doing the kind of investigative reporting that hold government officials' feet to the fire. . . .

"Rigorous reporting is even more important when you have one-party rule in Washington. Democrats, like Republicans, are simply less likely to scrutinize a president of their own."

Congressional Dems, when they were in charge, certainly did more oversight of Carter and Clinton than the GOP did during the Bush years. If they roll over for the new president, we should get on their case.

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen objects to another bit of Politico criticism, that O hasn't challenged his own team:

"For one thing, Obama has 'offended his own party's constituencies' more than a few times, both during and after the campaign. Before the election, Obama was at odds with Democrats over FISA and the financial industry bailout, and after the election, he frustrated party constituencies on everything from cabinet selections to Lieberman to Rick Warren to tax cuts in the stimulus bill.

"For another, what difference does it make? Or more to the point, why on earth would Obama's chances of success as president be dependent on his willingness to disagree frequently with his own party?"

No, but it does depend in part on his ability not to become a captive of Democratic Party orthodoxy and constituent groups.

So what did the new president get done on Day One?

"President Obama moved swiftly on Wednesday to impose new rules on government transparency and ethics, using his first full day in office to freeze the salaries of his senior aides, mandate new limits on lobbyists and demand that the government disclose more information," the NYT reports.

"Mr. Obama called the moves, which overturned two policies of his predecessor, 'a clean break from business as usual.' Coupled with Tuesday's Inaugural Address, which repudiated the Bush administration's decisions on everything from science policy to fighting terrorism, the actions were another sign of the new president's effort to emphasize an across-the-board shift in priorities, values and tone."

Adds the LAT: "The new president signaled his desire to wade into the Mideast conflict, conferring by telephone with the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. He also laid the groundwork for fulfilling his campaign pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

And the do-over:

"Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. got it right on the second try.

"In the White House last night, Roberts privately readministered the presidential oath of office to Barack Obama," the Boston Globe says. "In public, in front of a worldwide audience on Tuesday, Roberts flubbed the oath a little, causing Obama to repeat the wording differently than is prescribed in the Constitution."

Or as the New York Post put it, "Oaf of Office." Why didn't Roberts faithfully execute his job by just bringing the 35 words with him?

And talk about image management: The Obama team allows Time to shoot behind-the-scenes inaugural photos.

Obama: Good for the right? National Review's Jonah Goldberg gives the new president his due:

"I am proud of and excited by the fact that we have inaugurated the first black president of the United States. He wasn't my first choice, but he is nonetheless my president. And if ever there were a wonderful consolation prize in politics, shattering the race barrier in the White House is surely it. Conservatives who try too hard to belittle the importance of this milestone are mistaken on several fronts. First, this is simply a wonderful -- and wonderfully American -- story. Any political movement that is joyless about what this represents risks succumbing to bitter political crankery. . . .

"Yes, yes, Obama's a passionate defender of affirmative action and the like, but the symbolism of his presidency cannot be contained within narrow liberal agendas. . . .

"He has voiced an admirable disdain for the notion that academic excellence is nothing more than 'acting white.' His famous Father's Day speech in 2008 showed that Obama was willing to lend his voice to the effort to fight black illegitimacy and absentee fatherhood. This puts Obama behind the two most important ingredients for black success, at least according to most conservatives: a rededication to the importance of education at an individual level, and the restoration of the black nuclear family."

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, the former GOP congressman, sounds rather smitten:

"Barack Obama has captured the imagination not only of Washington and America, but also of the world.

"He has delivered the most compelling inaugural speech in 48 years. He has brought an era of good feelings to Washington that Pat Buchanan says he has never seen in his seven decades in Washington.

"Barack Obama has also broken racial and generational barriers. Has laid waste to a generation of ideological battles born in the streets of the 1960s. And he's brought a young, beautiful family to the White House. . . .

"Speaking as an American, all I can say is that I'm damn proud to be a part of this great republic."

But the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes damns the speech with faint praise -- very faint:

"My guess is that Obama succumbed to the notion that he must 'define the moment' we're in and then spell out where he thinks we should go. If that was his intention, he failed. Calling for 'รก new era of responsibility' -- and this was his core point -- places him among the traditionalists, not futurists.

"What's crucial to Obama's new era? He answered that with a list: 'hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.' And he admitted that 'these things are old. These things are true.' Indeed, they are. But they aren't the ingredients of a 'new age.' . . .

"Still, from a conservative viewpoint, the speech could have been a lot worse. That's not an accolade, but neither is it a pan."

Painting on a larger canvas, Tina Brown just feels good about Obama:

"It struck me as the Marine band played and I joined the river of people heading up C Street away from the west front of the capital. This was 9/11 in reverse. The last time I turned round and saw so many people behind me, it was that terrible day in New York when the twin towers burned and we poured out of our offices downtown and swarmed up Fifth Avenue. Then the faces were distraught. Now they were joyful. Then America had been assaulted by terror. Now it had been renewed by hope. A mysterious exchange has already taken place between our burdens and the president's demeanor. The more joyous we have become, the more sobriety Obama has assumed."

When she met him, "I was struck by how much less casual Obama looks behind the big, world beating smile. He exudes purpose and authority now. I told him my husband still has the contract he signed as president of Random House when their imprint Times Books acquired Dreams from My Father. 'Worth something now, huh?' he told me, as he draped a long arm to gather me in between himself and his even taller vice president and easefully lit up for the camera. I felt safer and calmer than I have for eight years."

Sounds like he made the sale.

Caroline is out: I'm not buying the spin that she decided to drop her Senate bid because of her uncle. She knew Ted was gravely ill when she asked David Paterson to give her the job. I believe that after her bungled rollout and obvious hesitation at dealing with reporters, either Paterson was leaning against her or she realized the job wasn't a good fit and needed a face-saving way to withdraw.

"About 90 minutes before she issued her statement," says the New York Post, which broke the story last night, "The Associated Press reported that she had renewed 'determination' to get the seat, after experiencing "misgivings" about taking on a new job when her uncle, who's battling brain cancer, suffered a seizure shortly after Obama's inauguration Tuesday. . . .

"While she cited 'personal reasons,' which some said was about the Massachusetts senator, others said she made her move after it became clear Paterson likely wasn't going to pick her."

That was quite a scoop -- almost as good as this New York Post scoop on Monday:

"Despite claims that he's still undecided, Gov. Paterson is 'certain' to pick Caroline Kennedy to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton in the U.S. Senate, several unhappy contenders for the job have told friends and associates in recent days."

Well, ah, never mind.

The NYT take: "Ms. Kennedy believed that the job was hers if she would accept it, the person said, but aides to Mr. Paterson would not comment on whether that was true."

Offered without comment:

"At the end of Malia and Sasha's scavenger late-night hunt, they opened a door to discover their favorite musical performers: Kevin, Joe, and Nick Jonas -- the pop boy band sensation who first exploded on the Disney Channel and also appeared earlier this week at the Kids' Inaugural Concert."

Okay, I have one comment. Ack.

The new White House blog is a snooze. Bunch of dry press releases. That's not change I can believe in.

The mystery of the disappearing Newsday editors has been solved -- partially:

"A dispute between Newsday editor John Mancini and owner Cablevision Systems Corp. over editorial content appeared to have been resolved Tuesday, when he returned to the newspaper's Melville headquarters.

"Speaking to newsroom staff, Mancini said his absence since Wednesday 'was due to a difference of opinion with ownership over the editorial policy of Newsday. That has been settled.' He declined to offer details, but said: 'No one outside the newsroom influences . . . our news coverage in any way.' Applause erupted, followed by many questions from staffers."

What was it about? Newsday isn't saying. We look forward to its next editorial on transparency in government.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive