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Obama Scores Early Victory of Historic Proportions

By Michael D. Shear and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 14, 2009

CHICAGO, Feb. 13 -- Twenty-four days into his presidency, Barack Obama recorded last night a legislative achievement of the sort that few of his predecessors achieved at any point in their tenure.

In size and scope, there is almost nothing in history to rival the economic stimulus legislation that Obama shepherded through Congress in just over three weeks. And the result -- produced largely without Republican participation -- was remarkably similar to the terms Obama's team outlined even before he was inaugurated: a package of tax cuts and spending totaling about $775 billion.

As Obama urged passage of the plan, he and his still-incomplete team demonstrated a single-mindedness that was familiar from the campaign trail. That intensity may have contributed to missteps in other areas, as the president's White House stumbled repeatedly in the vetting of his Cabinet and staff nominees. And high-minded promises of bipartisanship evaporated as Republicans accused the president and his Democratic allies in Congress of the same heavy-handed tactics that Obama, in his campaign, had often demanded be changed.

But even before the plan passed the Senate last night, the president's top advisers were crowing. "We've been in office, what, 2 1/2 , three weeks? We've passed the most major sweeping comprehensive legislation as relates to economic activity ever in a three-week period of time," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Thursday evening in the West Wing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) credited Obama's leadership on the legislation yesterday, saying, "The American people know, and historians are judging, that this is one remarkable president."

Certain that he had succeeded in his goal, Obama left Washington before the Senate vote was completed, returning home to Chicago last night for the first time since becoming president.

The feat compares only with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's banking system overhaul in 1933, which cleared Congress within days of his inauguration.

For Obama, though, the costs of that rapid pace may be his relationship with Republicans, who derided the bill as the wrong prescription for a national economy that has appeared for months to be on the verge of collapse.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) described the stimulus package as a "billion-dollar-a-page" spending plan and accused Democrats of not wanting people to read it "because they might actually find out what's in it. And in the days and weeks and months to come, we'll know how this money will be spent."

Obama aides had predicted several weeks ago that Republican lawmakers from states such as Michigan, Florida and California, where many communities are struggling, would feel compelled to vote for the bill's final passage because of the impact it promised for their constituents. Instead, opposition to the plan only increased over that time.

"This was not an easy vote for me. I had to dig down deep," said Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.). Her conclusion: "Michigan, we are getting railroaded."

Long before the end of the 100 days that, since FDR's feat, have been used to measure the opening act of a presidency, Obama and his allies who control Congress can point to a major legislative victory earlier than most new administrations.

At about this point in Bill Clinton's administration, the president and his new team were putting the final touches on an economic plan that had yet to be publicly announced.

That economic plan ultimately passed in August, giving the young president a victory. But his $19 billion stimulus plan -- one-fortieth of the current legislation -- was too controversial to survive the partisan battles.

By the end of three weeks, Clinton had named an envoy to Bosnia and announced rules to limit corporate tax deductions for executive pay. And he had announced a plan to save $35 billion in Medicare costs by cutting payments to hospitals and raising premiums for the wealthier elderly. He railed at the cost of prescription drugs. But none of those issues was resolved within that time.

President George W. Bush was similarly without a major achievement by the week of Feb. 8, 2001, three weeks after his inauguration.

Bush had begun selling his $1.6 trillion plan to cut taxes, and he had announced a plan for a big investment in new weaponry for the military. He was preparing for his first international trip, to Mexico, and gave a speech to military units warning against "overdeployment."

Unlike Obama, by this point Bush had not yet held a prime-time news conference. Like Obama, Bush made an early gesture to encourage bipartisanship: inviting members of the Kennedy family to the White House to see the movie "Thirteen Days."

Bush's efforts at bipartisanship largely failed, but not until after he had launched a war in Iraq and pursued controversial efforts to expand the power of the executive branch.

Obama may yet find that his early legislative success amounts to little in a country where the public has a famously short attention span. And other issues will soon intrude on a White House that has largely tried to postpone foreign policy concerns and other domestic issues.

Obama moved quickly to announce the closure of the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but he said it would take a year to study how to make it happen. On issues ranging from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the war in Iraq, he has ordered commissions or study groups to make recommendations.

And thus far, he has taken a pass on other hot-button domestic issues: He has not succumbed to pressure to take quick action on stem cell research or new unionizing rules, for example.

Obama aides dismiss such points, saying that the deepening economic crisis required the president to focus all of his attention on the stimulus package first.

Emanuel, who served as a senior adviser in Clinton's administration, said, "Having been in two separate White Houses, within our third week, given our set of accomplishments -- well, measure them up."

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