Bruised by Stimulus Battle, Obama Changed His Approach to Washington

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The night before the Senate vote on President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill, one question echoed through the West Wing:

Where is Arlen Specter?

The Republican senator from Pennsylvania would not answer his phone. Not for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) or Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader.

The president, a senator himself only a few months before, had spent weeks courting Specter. Obama had invited him to his Super Bowl party days earlier, gently teasing the prickly lawmaker about wearing a coat and tie to a relaxed social gathering. He had also brought Specter in for a 15-minute, one-on-one session in the Oval Office.

"This is the first president I've ever met alone," Specter would later say of the meeting. "I'm just searching for the right word -- it was unique."

With the vote only hours away, the job of finding the senator fell to Vice President Biden, who reached him by phone on the morning of the Feb. 13 vote. Soon after, Biden called Emanuel, who had been operating on virtually no sleep for several days, with the news: Specter would vote yes. In return for his support, Specter, who has Hodgkin's disease, won a large increase in cancer research funding for the National Institutes of Health.

"The dominoes," a senior adviser involved in the lobbying effort recalled, "began to fall into place."

Hours later, the Senate delivered the filibuster-proof 60 votes needed in favor of a measure that senior White House officials noted among themselves was more costly than the New Deal. For Specter, the vote represented a major step toward leaving the Republican Party, a defection he announced yesterday, putting Obama closer to being able to force his will in the Senate.

"While we passed the largest piece of domestic spending legislation in history, we went through 48 hours of not knowing if we were going to get anything at all," said a senior administration official involved in the stimulus campaign. "In the end, you saw what a thin, thin, thin margin it was."

During his first 100 days, Obama has moved quickly to strengthen the U.S. economy, refine the American strategy in two foreign wars and reverse Bush-era detention and interrogation policies that have drawn condemnation at home and abroad. But his first weeks in office have also showed a president who, rather than changing Washington, as he pledged during his historic campaign, was being changed by it.

The near-defeat of his stimulus plan has emerged as the seminal learning experience for Obama and his fledgling administration, which came to Washington with equally high measures of ambition and confidence in its ability to quickly begin remaking the country. Along the way, Obama and his advisers, who had campaigned against Washington's insular politics, made several missteps that undermined their message of reform and helped stoke the capital's partisan traditions.

At the core of the misjudgment were poll-driven assumptions made by the president's senior advisers, many of them schooled in politics on Capitol Hill. Several believed that a fair number of Republican lawmakers would rally behind the nation's first African American president at a time of crisis, an assessment that proved wrong when only three GOP senators supported the stimulus measure and not a single House Republican followed suit.

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