Monday, January 12, 2009

Change That at Least Some People Can Believe In

By Stuart Rothenberg

Although he hasn’t yet taken the oath of office, President-elect Barack Obama has already made appointments, offered comments about the Middle East and sketched out the elements of an economic stimulus package that he hopes to be able to sign.

Predictably, some observers are already talking about the “several hits” that Obama has taken, a reference to the withdrawal of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s (D) nomination for the top job at Commerce and the mishandling of the appointment of Leon Panetta to head the CIA.

But these problems are minor, and the reaction to most of the incoming administration’s appointments has been positive. But that doesn’t mean everyone is thrilled with everything Obama has done.

Republicans are unhappy with the size of the stimulus package, while liberals are worried that his foreign policy advisers are too conservative. Gays are angry that he’s picked a conservative evangelical minister to offer the benediction at his inauguration.

The Club for Growth is skeptical about another big jobs program and wants across-the-board tax cuts instead. Self-styled Democratic outsiders wonder how Paul Volcker, Lawrence Summers, Panetta, Tom Daschle, Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Robert Gates constitute change.

CODEPINK is upset that Obama hasn’t taken a strong stand against the violence in the Middle East and against Israel’s military actions in Gaza. And, of course, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is very unhappy that Obama didn’t discuss his selection for CIA chief with her before it was leaked to the media.

All in all, that adds up to a pretty good start for the incoming commander in chief. Any politician who has ruffled so many feathers from such diverse constituencies must be doing something right.

Every new president causes some grumbling within his own base and even more from the political opposition, but incoming President Obama is particularly vulnerable to complaints from the peanut gallery.

That’s because when he ran for president promising change, the Illinois Democrat was purposely vague. There are many forms of change, and Obama’s campaign message allowed each person to define what he or she thought that change would be.

For some, change merely meant different people and a different agenda in the White House. For others it meant a different political party calling the shots.

For some, change meant a quick exit from Iraq, while others simply thought change meant a new approach in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For some, change meant a sharply more liberal approach to government, including greater income redistribution, a much stronger commitment to “green” alternatives and programs and policies that would be praised by organized labor, the gay community and the minority community.

For others, change merely meant competence — an administration that would not see every decision in ideological terms but would emphasize management and problem solving.

Now, we are starting to see how the incoming president defines change in the days leading up to his swearing-in.

Anybody who has followed campaigns and presidential administrations over the past three or four decades understands that campaigning and governing are two different worlds.

Presidential campaigns tend toward the thematic, with broad brushes about change or security or energy independence or “getting the economy going.” But governing is about choices and trade-offs, and often about building coalitions, even if one party holds 59 seats in the Senate.

For the moment, the new president seems more interested in de-emphasizing ideology and partisanship, and even in reaching out to Republicans. He apparently is trying to “change the tone in Washington” and in the nation at large. That’s the kind of change that many Americans will approve of, even if isn’t going to please some of Obama’s most committed supporters immediately.

But four years is a long time, and the “change” Barack Obama seems to be pursuing at the moment may be very different from the “change” he pursues two or three years from now, particularly if the economy has rebounded by then and the nation’s financial problems are in the rearview mirror.

People who are satisfied now may be less satisfied in two years, while those disappointed in the incoming administration’s initial steps may be more than happy.

One thing that seems certain is that all of the harping on the appointment of Roland Burris to the Senate and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) problems, the delay in seating Minnesota’s Al Franken (D) in the Senate, the controversy over whether Caroline Kennedy should be appointed to the New York Senate seat, and Richardson’s withdrawal as the nominee to be secretary of Commerce are momentary distractions that will not undermine Obama’s reputation or power.

A few months from now, all of these embarrassments will be largely forgotten, overshadowed by important White House and Congressional decisions, as well as the news of the day.

If Obama falters, it won’t be because of Bill Richardson or Rod Blagojevich. And if he succeeds, it will be because he continues down the path he has already begun.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 9, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.