Obama's Strange Obsession

As the Judd Gregg nomination bites the dust, the president ought to officially give up on bipartisanship.

Jim Watson, AFP / Getty Images

Obama’s going to win his stimulus package—but only after he’s gone through the political equivalent of a near-death experience. What has he learned from it?

I for one hope he dumps his obsession with “bipartisanship.” It’s time for him to recognize that overrated concept as what it was: a campaign theme designed to sharpen the contrast between his own reassuring serenity and the Republicans’ crazed, kill-’em-all negativity. It worked—but now the election’s over.

This president and his party received a full-throated mandate to promote a new political agenda. He knows that we all know that the country was run into the ground by his predecessor and his predecessor’s party. So why in these desperate times does he seem to care so much about being liked by the side he defeated? On inauguration eve, he bestowed on Sen. John McCain the very nice gesture of a dinner honoring his service. But McCain understood this as a mere pause in political combat, like that First World War Christmas truce when British and German troops played soccer and sang carols together for a few hours before returning to the slaughter.

This past week you could feel a dry-mouthed, stomach- knotted apprehension in the national perception of our brave new president.

Last week, a rejuvenated McCain headed right back to his Senate trench to machine-gun Obama’s stimulus package as if nothing had happened on November 4 or January 20. The Republicans, in a sudden resurgence of discipline, turned themselves back into the insurgents rather than the architects of the present chaos. And Obama himself seemed taken aback, as if he was really surprised that his friendly overtures didn't get him a single Republican vote in the House and only three predictable ones in the Senate.

Obama has let everybody think that “bipartisanship” means that the party that just lost the election after screwing up the country and the world gets to have veto power over the party that won. Or that if the Republicans choose to vote against his program it must be his fault. Or that for a policy to be good it has to be supported by the very politicians who just got through spending a year denouncing it. Meanwhile, the economic avalanche that will bury us all ominously gathers force.

Obama should talk to Bill Clinton about the difficulties he had at the beginning, when he inherited an economic mess from a departing president named Bush. Clinton passed his first budget without a single Republican vote in either the House or the Senate. Before it led to the longest economic expansion in US history, it led to a Democratic defeat in the 1994 midterms. But Clinton’s problem was high interest rates, and he had to raise taxes and curb spending to cut the deficit. Now, interest rates are near zero, and Obama is cutting taxes and raising spending, neither of which is political poison. With the unemployment figures for January climbing to 7.5 percent and almost certainly going higher, elaborate rituals of “civility” are low on the list of things anyone cares about.

The strange thing is that Obama, famous for his stirring rhetoric, is only today boarding Air Force One for a manic few days of stimulus selling (though he’ll have more flak still when the financial rescue for ailing banks hits the fan on Tuesday).

Yet right after his thrilling assumption of office there would have been no better time to stand up for social programs in the package he presumably cared about. Instead, Democrats started acting as if the NEA had caught a STD. And if he didn’t really care about those programs, how come he exposed himself to easy ridicule that tarred the whole initiative?

For a solid week, the media noise was nothing but an echo chamber of Republican talking points about the Democrats having crammed in frivolous pork that had nothing to do with “real” recovery. Obama could have fought for more and given up less, arguing that his economic plan is a vision of how to rebuild America. The Bush tax cuts were social engineering, too, and they passed with Democratic votes. Bipartisanship indeed! There’s no such thing as a budget that isn’t social engineering. The only question is which end of society gets to drive the engine.

I can only think that the Geithner and Daschle tax debacles threw Obama and his new team seriously off their game. Daschle’s slapdash oversights and complicated lobbying relationships were probably the first of many occasions when Obama’s campaign song will come back to haunt him. A promise to purify politics seems a luxury there isn’t time for now, as potentially fraught with unhelpful distraction as a campaign to clean up the morals of Hollywood. Anyway, it’s the Augean stables of Wall Street for which we are all shovel-ready.

Sadly, when it comes to personal finances, smart, idealistic people can be just as sloppy, naïve or secretly greedy as the people they vow to eject from the system. Daschle’s silly red glasses betrayed a weakness for glamorous trappings. The boy genius Geithner turned into an absent-minded professor when he filled in his tax returns. The trouble is that an inattention to the details of money is not exactly what we want in a Treasury secretary at the moment.

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What’s baffling is that after so much malfeasance by the banks and rating agencies, public figures still don’t understand there’s a cloud of free-floating public rage waiting to alight on any nominee for office who hasn’t cleaned up their act.

This past week, you could feel a dry-mouthed, stomach-knotted apprehension in the national perception of our brave new president. There were uneasy conversations around town about how the Hillary camp always said he wasn’t tough enough or experienced enough to fend off the Republican attack dogs. Obama should understand that bipartisanship is what you can claim after you’ve beaten down the opposition. It’s a theme for victors, not supplicants. Only then do you invite them all over for a Chardonnay and cheese reception where, through gritted teeth, they toast the outcome they tried to thwart.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.