The First Three Weeks

Sunday, February 15, 2009

IF PRESIDENT Obama and his advisers had a magic wand rather than a balky, and balkanized, Congress, the dire recession would still be daunting. But the presidency does not come with a magic wand; nor, we have learned, is Mr. Obama, however talented, a wizard.

The president's admitted mistakes on nominations have served as a reminder that he is, after all, rather new to the game of national politics and the art of balancing the lofty aims of campaign pledges against the real-world demands of governing. The abrupt withdrawal of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the president's second choice for commerce secretary, was a painful demonstration of the limits of bipartisanship. The narrow and rushed passage of his stimulus package underscored the difficulty of living up to his grand promises of transparency; the campaign trail talk about not cutting deals behind closed doors yielded to the demands of the moment. And if it was this hard for Mr. Obama to lure Republican votes to spend money, how will he manage to entice Republican support to deal with even more contentious issues, such as climate change or health care?

The immediate challenge for the new administration, one that is harder and more important than the stimulus measure, will be to bring stability to the nation's banking system. On that task, "chastening" is a mild word to apply to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner's debut of the administration's plan. The president promised that his treasury secretary would offer "very clear and specific plans," after which Mr. Geithner laid out a blueprint only. The result was to undermine both Mr. Geithner, who is abler than he seemed at the rollout, and the plan, which is more promising than its reception would suggest.

Every presidency has its learning curve, and by historical standards Mr. Obama has had more than his share of successes. It did not receive enough notice in the frenzy over the stimulus vote that the Democratic president secured, in addition to the usual suspects, the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. Mr. Obama already has overseen three major pieces of legislation: the Lilly Ledbetter employment discrimination measure, an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program and the stimulus package. Not bad for little more than three weeks' work. His reaching out to Republican lawmakers may not have borne immediate fruit, but it planted potentially fertile seeds for future cooperation.

Unfortunately for Mr. Obama and the nation, the current economic situation does not allow for the usual margin of error; fairly or not, he will not be measured against normal historical standards. Sooner rather than later, he will have to find the right balance between reassurance and alarmism; sooner than in past administrations, he needs a full team in place.

Fortunately for the nation, while Mr. Obama has an experience deficit, he possesses a surfeit of smarts and steadiness. Perhaps partly as a result, the country's optimism about him is accompanied by a realistic assessment of the problems he confronts and the time it will take to address them. Even in an age of instant gratification, Americans seem to understand that economic recovery is likely to take months, if not years. Whether this attitude will continue in the face of continued economic stress is open to question. But the sober approach Mr. Obama has taken since his election, underscoring the severity of the situation and taking pains to avoid over-promising results, may help keep the patient calm in the months that it will take to gauge the medication's effectiveness.

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