Was Obama Misunderestimated?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; 11:16 AM

When President Obama signs the mega-stimulus bill today, he will have either:

--Won a remarkable victory by pushing through the biggest financial package in American history in record time, far faster than any of his predecessors; or

--Rammed through a porkulus measure that won't help the economy and has decimated his efforts at achieving bipartisanship.

A fascinating observation by David Axelrod to Frank Rich, discounting much of the punditry that surrounded the debate:

"This town talks to itself and whips itself into a frenzy with its own theories that are completely at odds with what the rest of America is thinking. If you watched cable TV, you'd see our support was plummeting, we were in trouble. It was almost like living in a parallel universe."

Axelrod has half a point. Beltway journalists were so wrapped up with process, and using GOP support as a measuring stick, that they lost sight of the bigger picture. Obama got his economic bill through seven months faster than Ronald Reagan did in 1981, and the only thing most people worry about is whether it will create jobs in their community. (I'm worried, based on reading various economists, that the bill isn't big enough and they'll be back for more in a year, but that is unknowable at this point.)

At the same time, Rich pokes fun at the coverage: "Am I crazy, or wasn't the Obama presidency pronounced dead just days ago? Obama had 'all but lost control of the agenda in Washington,' declared Newsweek on Feb. 4 as it wondered whether he might even get a stimulus package through Congress. 'Obama Losing Stimulus Message War' was the headline at Politico a day later."

But those accounts were right. No less an authority than Rahm Emanuel admitted the White House had lost control of the debate. We saw the president playing catchup last week, pushing the measure as a jobs plan rather than just a big necessary thing required to avert catastrophe. And by letting House Democrats write their version, Obama got saddled with the aroma of pork (reseeding the Mall?) that became symbolic of a bloated measure even though it was a tiny fraction of the spending.

The problem is this: Even if the measure works, the economy is going be really awful for at least a year. Things could have been worse isn't much of a rallying cry. And you don't need pundits to predict what might happen if the economy doesn't recover within three years. Obama did it by saying: "You'll have a new president."

With so much focus on the unity of the Republicans, the New Republic's John Judis looks at the left:

"There are many good things to say about the stimulus bill. But all in all, it wasn't as good as it could be: It's probably too small and too skewed toward tax cuts, and particularly cuts for upper-income people who won't necessarily spend them. The bank bailout is, well, a mystery, but at best a political fiasco. What's the problem here?

"I'll give the three obvious answers before saying what I think is the fundamental problem: First, as for the administration, Obama didn't get out on the stump soon enough to explain why government spending is essential, and his Treasury Secretary doesn't at this point appear up to the job. Secondly, the Congressional Republicans either don't know any economics or are willing to put the country at risk to advance their own party's fortune. Third, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid failed again -- the previous instance was over the auto bailout -- to use the power of his position to win support for Democratic initiatives.

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