Obama and Pelosi - With Friends Like These...

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It is still early, not even two-thirds of the way through the vaunted 100 days, and we are all admonished not to make judgments or dire predictions. Yet enough has been done so that, without fear that history will someday mock me, I can state that Nancy Pelosi is off to one hell of a start. The president, alas, is a different story.

The tale of two political figures was written one day last week when Pelosi went down into the well of the House and pitched the bill to heavily tax the bad people at AIG who received big bonuses. Using the tax code to exact punishment for political reasons is both bad policy and bad law -- why not put gun-shop owners and cigarette manufacturers in the 100 percent bracket? -- but it hurtled through Pelosi's branch of the government with nary a hearing and few discouraging words, and only the mildest suggestion from the president that the bill was really a dumb idea.

The pressure for the legislation was great. In just a day, Charlie Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, went from opposing the idea to introducing the very bill he had earlier denounced. Rangel had all the stock phrases ready -- stuff about shattered dreams and greedy executives, which is all true enough -- but he was right when he first said that the tax code should not be used as a "political weapon." With such an about-face, it's a miracle he did not wind up in traction.

As for Obama, around the time this extremely ill-considered piece of legislation was flying through Congress and Pelosi was waxing very hot indeed on television, the cool president went on the Jay Leno show. His appearance was historic, we were solemnly told, but it also turned out to be useful for him to get out of town. The most toxic asset in Washington was fast becoming Congress, where the Democratic leadership was threatening to send him an awful bill that could be very hard to veto. With friends like these . . .

Earlier in the administration, the White House allowed Congress to write the $787 billion stimulus bill. It was bad enough that the candidate who promised change had no choice but to prop up some of the country's most reviled or antiquated institutions -- financial firms, auto manufacturers, etc. -- but what's worse is that the bill came blinged with extra spending. That allowed Republicans to pose as longtime and passionate opponents of pork, producing a noxious cloud of hypocrisy that drifted from the Capitol to the White House. This was not the fresh air of change but the stale air of business as usual.

Something similar happened with the $410 billion omnibus spending bill. Earmarks were permitted. This was not the president's bill since it originated under the previous administration, but Obama did not fight the earmarks or seem upset by them and indeed pronounced them yesterday's news. The speaker, as is her wont, got her way and so, once again, change was parked at some scenic overlook, biding its time until it is allowed into Washington. It is already way late.

The president is slipping in the polls. Last month, he had a 64 percent approval rating. This month it was 59 percent, but more to the point, the National Journal's astute Charlie Cook noticed that political independents were trending Republican. Some of this was bound to happen, but some of it is a consequence of Obama remaining undifferentiated, defined more by allies like Pelosi than by enemies like the GOP.

In foreign policy, where a president is monarch, Obama has been a change agent. But in domestic matters, Obama's image has become muddled. He remains more popular than credible. Where does he draw the line? Not at tax delinquency, clearly, and not at earmarks, clearly, and not at real school reform, which he advocates but has done little to implement. He sometimes says he's angry, as with the AIG bonuses, but it's a parental pose designed to fool children and is not a genuine emotion. Obama eschews symbolic politics.

This is not the case with Pelosi. She is a strong speaker of the House, both an ideologue and a pragmatist, who cherishes her prerogatives and guards her turf -- more like Newt Gingrich than previous Democratic speakers -- but her message is hardly one of change. It's early yet, but already she's left her mark on the government -- and, in the process, all over Obama's image.

cohenr@ washpost. com

© 2009 The Washington Post Company