02.25.09

Republicans Smell Weakness In Obama

The public may have liked the president’s big speech, but the GOP isn’t worried. Insiders say they’re raring for a fight, and that they think Obama’s in a very vulnerable position.

Here’s how it looked from the Republican side of the aisle. “[House Minority Leader John] Boehner told us,” a senior Republican recounted to me after the president’s address on the financial crisis to a joint session of Congress, “‘Behave, be cool, be nice, sit back, all smiles, no carping, no attacking the president, no trouble. For six months.’ And everyone is cool with that. The morale is great. The old guys are into it as much as the young. We just sat there through the speech and smiled and nodded. There was only one time there might have been towel snapping, when he mentioned there were no earmarks in the stimulus bill. The boys got a little rowdy at that point. A little out of line. Could you hear it on the TV? They were a little rude. The president kept looking to the Democrats for the love, and then he would look at us to act smug, and we gotta out of line at that earmark mention.”

A senior House Republican told me: “Bipartisan this and that, bipartisan anything. Go to the meetings, listen closely, shake hands. The president is a star. His financial team isn’t. And he knows it.” 

The GOP House members are a randy, sophisticated, energetic lot, and they are eager for the contest with the young Obama administration and the Democratic House leadership. So far the House GOP has confidence that not only will they not be overrun by the Democratic hordes and their media cavalry but also that they are attracting the ears of the Republican voters who sense a phenomenon building from the ash-heap left by DeLay, Abramoff and the Rovian administration. The same young Republican members who voted twice “No” against the grotesque TARP plan and the false-tongued Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in the 110th Congress are now joined by the old fogey leaders in the caucus already voting “No” twice to the gargantuan trillion-dollar Democratic stimulus plan with not a single Republican vote for it.

That was the “towel snapping” moment during the president’s speech. Whether they are right or not, the GOP House members sense animal weakness in the Obama administration on just this point: that the stimulus plan won’t work, that the polls show the American voters doubt it will work, and that the Obama administration is clumsily defensive and prickly because they cannot demonstrate it will work. Hence the strange line, “No one messes with Joe,” in Obama’s speech, as if Joe Biden will be the enforcer of the stimulus trillions. “Joe Biden is just another back-slapping senator who no one dislikes,” said senior House Republican told me, laughing and dismissing the question. “The most you can say is that he might be nutty.”

“I feel sorry for him sometimes,” confided a senior Republican House member about President Obama. “He invited us over to the White House to explain to us how the stimulus plan is working, and how the budget is going to work, and he spoke to us a couple of times. He doesn’t act like he knows what’s going on with the economy. He’s so afraid of confrontation, when you challenge him, he backs off, like he doesn’t know the right answer. Who does? That’s why you kinda feel sorry for him. Not his guys, they don’t act like they know. Do they notice the stock market sinking? Who doesn’t? There’s this sense of disarray. The administration is made up of a lot of Number twos. The only one with any gravitas is [David] Axelrod. Geithner? He looks like he’s 12-years-old, or a grad student. The president is like a perfect vice president. That’s what the big speech was like. A vice president was talking.”

In the White House Fiscal Responsibility Summit the day before the speech, the bipartisan House and Senate members broke up into working groups assigned by the White House, and in the group on taxes, led by Secretary Geithner and Council of Economic Advisers chief Christina Romer, there were many senior politicians. According to my source, the voice that pushed back hardest against Geithner’s facilitator remarks was Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel. This points to the possibility that the young administration is not just troubled by the rascally GOP House, but also by the crafty lions on its own side. “Nancy Pelosi has a problem that Harry Raid does not,” it was explained to me. “The Black Caucus and the big guys like [Jim] Clyburn and [Charlie] Rangel. Rangel lectured Geithner. Afterward there was joking that Geithner looks like he takes a Razor Scooter to work.”

Asked about the president’s soaring approval ratings, the senior Republican said, “Yeah, he’s really popular, like in the '70s, but it’s his personal approval rating. On his handling of the economy, he’s down around 60 and sinking. That’s why we won’t attack him. We praise him. Bipartisan this and that, bipartisan anything. Go to the meetings, listen closely, shake hands. The president is a star. His financial team isn’t. And he knows it. When he protested that his stimulus bill was going to create all these green jobs, he was told back, what’s that do for a machinist in the UAW who just got his job yanked? And the president smiled and laughed sympathetically and said, ‘I was just joking with you.’”

I reminded my source that once upon a time in the Great Depression, during the very month of March of FDR’s inauguration in 1933, Hollywood produced a wonderful fairy tale called Gabriel Over the White House, in which a pleasant, back-slapping, nonconfrontational President Jasper Hammond, played by the vivacious Walter Huston, piles up his car in a joy ride, and while recovering from the accident is visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who inspires the president to lead without fear. The reawakened Jasper Hammond fires the hack Cabinet, discards Congress and the courts, and assumes dictatorial powers to confront a million-man unemployed army march on the Capitol, face down machine-gun-toting gangsters who attack the White House, and challenge the war-mongering nations who owe the US war debts. He is a wunderkind on the new medium of the national radio broadcast, and the people are inspired by him so much they regain their pride and promise.

“No, no, no, that ain’t Obama,” said my best GOP House source. “Inspiration is not what you hear from the president. The one thing that comes across from being in the chamber with him is, that the thing you felt with Clinton, it’s not there, there’s no magic. The Democrats don’t feel it and we sure don’t. The president didn’t earn what he’s got, and no one’s afraid of him… Dictatorial power? Fascist. That’ll be the day. No one's worried about what he’s going to do. People applaud. What’s it mean? ”

John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.