Forget, for a moment, that the closer the stimulus bill comes to becoming law, the worse it looks to many Americans—including Obama’s own nominee for Commerce secretary, who withdrew yesterday, in part, because of his concerns over the package. Forget that it took Obama about 15 minutes to redefine bipartisanship to mean inviting Republicans to his Super Bowl party instead of governing in a consensus fashion that relies on the best ideas from both parties. Forget all that. Once Obama left Washington and embarked on his misery tour of places that have been hardest hit by the economic crisis, it was lights out for the critics of the stimulus bill. Once Henrietta Hughes rose to speak, the debate was over. The economic crisis had its leading lady—a human face so compelling and dramatic that Obama could point to her as Exhibit A in his case for urgent (if misguided) action.
Once Obama left Washington and embarked on his misery tour of places that have been hardest hit by the economic crisis, it was lights out for the critics of the stimulus bill.
And so it goes that the Obama White House learned its first lesson about governing from the heartland. Not to be confused with campaigning for the heartland, governing from the heartland is a special combination of presidential empathy, solid staff work, and good luck. Obama needed all three of these forces to work together to help him accomplish his top legislative objective this week. When Hughes rose to speak, she looked the president in the eye and spoke with eloquence. “I have an urgent need,” she said, “unemployment and homelessness, a very small vehicle for my family and I to live in. The housing authority has two years’ waiting lists, and we need something more than the vehicle and the parks to go to. We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom. Please help.”
Her story, understandably, made the network news and ran in a continuous loop on cable television. President Obama had the kind of news cycle that he needed to help make the case for “urgent” passage of his stimulus bill. Since then, Obama has continued to campaign for the stimulus bill—even after its passage in both houses of Congress—because the White House sees the drooping poll numbers for the package. Growing numbers of Americans are questioning the bill’s size and impact on the deficits, its ability to create jobs in a meaningful and lasting way, and the items that sound a more like pork than job makers.
Here’s where Republicans can learn an important lesson. Republicans should band together and embark on their own tour of the heartland. Republicans are at risk of being painted by Obama as being for “inaction,” which is far from the truth. Republicans like John McCain describe the stimulus bill as “generational theft,” and many people share that view. Senate Republicans offered their own package and included triggers that would shut off spending when the economy improved. These are sound ideas, but many of them never received much attention outside Washington.
In an hour of crisis, Americans want to see their leaders in the arena. They are scared. Between Obama and much of the media, we hear the word “depression” repeated almost as often as “far from perfect” is repeated to describe the stimulus bill. Republicans need to roll up their sleeves and stand face to face with Henrietta Hughes and tell her how they will help her. They need to stand before jobless Americans, college students just entering the job market, soldiers returning from service to find that their jobs are gone, and retirees who have lost their savings. They need to meet with homeowners at risk of foreclosure and individuals drowning in credit-card debt or student loans. They need to swim in people’s pain and show them that they get it. And then they need to explain how their ideas will help without piling insurmountable debt on the backs of future generations.
People are smart. They understand that a stimulus bill is supposed to create jobs and grow the economy. They want help—they are desperate for help—but they also want to be leveled with. Obama’s confidence and well-timed trips outside Washington may have delivered a tactical victory, but it’s Republicans who have an opportunity—if they choose to take it—to show that their ideas meet the ultimate test of good “crisis” policy making: First, do no harm.
Nicolle Wallace was a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign. She served George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House from January 2005 to June 2006, as communications director for President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, and as special assistant to the president and director of media affairs at the White House.