03.22.09

Obama Has His "Brownie Moment"

Obama’s embrace of Geithner on 60 Minutes came off like Bush patting Michael Brown on the back after Katrina—typical of the no-we-can’t mantra at the White House right now.

President Obama just had his “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” moment. In an appearance on 60 Minutes, Obama was asked what he’d say to embattled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner if he offered his resignation. Obama said he would say, “Sorry, buddy, you’ve still got the job.”

Never before has a political appointee with so much promise and potential fallen so far so fast. Republicans were initially thrilled with the selection of Geithner. Shortly after Obama’s inauguration, a Bush administration official told me, “If you liked the first bailout, you’re going to love the next one. Geithner was one of the chief architects.” But his support among Republicans, Democrats, Wall Street types, and the general public stands at the statistically precise figure of less than zero.

Will Obama continue to paint every American who realizes prosperity with the same broad brush of greed? Will he continue to place his political health ahead of the nation’s mental health?

The problem for Obama isn’t Geithner’s lack of popularity—it’s his lack of success. So far, he hasn’t done anything that has inspired confidence in the financial markets. So far, he hasn’t made any public appearances that have inspired confidence. And so far, he has failed to form a productive or even functional relationship with Republicans or Democrats in Congress.

The notion that he’s rattling around at Treasury without any help is bogus. He has skilled political and communications counselors around him, and you can bet your last dollar that the White House political and message machines are knee-deep in Geithner’s message operation.

So it’s surprising, then, that the messages coming from the Obama administration over the last week have underscored a central theme completely at odds with his rousing campaign theme, “Yes, we can.” The Obama White House message of late seems to be “No, we can’t.”

First, there was nothing they could do about those AIG bonuses. Then, there was nothing Obama could do to quell the public anger—in fact, he told us, he was angry, too. And now, there’s nothing Obama can do about the exploding federal deficit except make it bigger by passing his wacky budget. I wonder what the White House will say if the labor-backed tours of AIG executives’ homes in Fairfield, Connecticut, take a turn for the worse. What will he do if the populist rage he refused to quell or failed to tamp town turns more sinister? Will he continue to stoke the flames of class warfare? Will he continue to paint every American who realizes a degree of prosperity with the same broad brush of greed and corruption? Will he continue to place his political health ahead of the nation’s mental health?

Obama has a misplaced understanding of what it means to take responsibility for a nation’s despair and the consequences of a crisis. CNN’s Jessica Yellin summed it up well: “Each time he takes responsibility, it’s followed with a ‘but.’”

He says things like: “If you want to blame someone you can blame me, but don’t forget, I inherited this mess.” But that “but” is what gets in the way of actually giving the public a sense that there’s something Obama can do to absorb and fix the crisis. When Obama declared last week that “we didn’t write those contracts” with AIG, he made his economic team look like a feeble band of forensic accountants sniffing around mysterious documents looking for hidden truths in the fine print. In reality, the smoking gun was hidden in plain sight. The media has been reporting on the AIG bonuses for weeks, and we now know that the provision that allowed the bonuses was requested by Obama’s Treasury department.

At his best, Obama inspired millions of Americans that our politics could be different and better than at any other point in our nation’s history. He won by railing against the shortcomings of the Clinton and Bush eras and promising something better. He asked the American people to join him on his historic journey to change Washington—to change “business as usual” and to rise above partisan bickering to bring about real change.

First, there was nothing they could do about those AIG bonuses. And now, there’s nothing Obama can do about the exploding deficit except make it bigger by passing his wacky budget.

In his inaugural address, Obama said of the economic crisis: “These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land—a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.” Unfortunately, Obama’s recent media blitz did more to heighten our nagging fears than inspire confidence in the team he’s picked to turn the tide against the decline he warned of a few short weeks ago.

Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.