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Time to Play Hardball

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Thursday, February 5, 2009; Page A17

The irony of President Obama's Blue Tuesday is that the wall-to-wall television interviews he granted were designed not to apologize for Tom Daschle's fall from grace but to fight back against the Republicans' success in tarnishing his stimulus package.

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Obama's network appearances were planned as a response to a wholly unanticipated development: Republicans -- short on new ideas, low on votes and deeply unpopular in the polls -- have been winning the media war over the president's central initiative.

They have done so largely by focusing on minor bits of the stimulus that amount, as Obama said in at least two of his network interviews, to "less than 1 percent of the overall package." But Republicans have succeeded in defining the proposal by its least significant parts.

Daschle's withdrawal as the nominee for secretary of health and human services poses a long-term challenge to the administration's ambitious health-care plans because the former Senate majority leader was so crucial to the White House's strategy. But the battering that the stimulus has taken is an immediate problem.

Although Obama aides dismiss the media coverage as "cable chatter" important only inside the "Washington echo chamber," they acknowledge that Congress does its work inside that noisy hall and that the journalistic back-and-forth has tainted its key legislative objective. "We didn't give it as much air cover last week as we should" have, said one top adviser. "We lost a week."

This thinking was reflected during Obama's interviews, once he got through his apologies for having "screwed up" the Daschle matter.

Obama kept bringing the stimulus discussion back to the bill's purpose of restoring life to a cratered economy. He also highlighted the bill's substantive elements -- in health care, education, energy and relief to fiscally ailing states -- that have received scant attention in news accounts dominated by political questions regarding how much Obama should concede to the Republican minority.

For most of the debate, Obama has cast himself as a benevolent referee overseeing a sprawling and untidy legislative process to which he would eventually bring order. He urged Democrats to knock out small spending measures that had caused public relations problems while doing little to defend the overall package or to reply to its Republican critics.

In the meantime, those critics have been relentless, often casting logic aside to reframe the debate from a practical concern over how to rescue the economy to an ideological dispute about government spending.

"This plan is a spending plan; it's not a stimulus plan," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), ignoring the truth that stimulus plans -- including Republican proposals to put more money into resolving the housing crisis -- by definition include significant new spending.

And Republicans who in one breath say they want more tax cuts declare in the next that they are against the tax cuts Obama has proposed.

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said of Obama's $500 refundable tax credit: "Calling a rebate to people who don't pay income taxes a tax cut doesn't make it a tax cut." Presumably Kyl doesn't consider as taxes the payroll taxes (or, for that matter, sales taxes) paid disproportionately by low- and middle-income Americans.


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