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Joan Vennochi

Three weeks in, and no one has Obama's back

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 8, 2009
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PRESIDENT OBAMA should get that dog soon. Already, he needs a friend in Washington.

His transition team let him down. So did fellow Democrats who control Congress.

The string of Cabinet nominees with tax problems showcased a lack of proper vetting and an overabundance of arrogance. Either way, it produced a team whose key players are limping rather than leaping onto the field. Some prospective teammates never made it out of the locker room.

What happened with Obama's economic stimulus plan also stings. Democrats couldn't wait to push as much of their liberal economic agenda as possible, as quickly as possible, whether or not it helped Obama's post-partisan agenda. Their nearly trillion-dollar package merely reordered the funding priorities that have existed for decades.

"We have his back," declared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a retreat for House Democrats in Williamsburg, Va. This expression of solidarity came after Pelosi allowed her members to stab Obama in the back. With Pelosi's acquiescence, the House-passed bill was packed with items that are easy for taxpayers to think of as old-fashioned spending, not economic jump-starting.

Meanwhile, Senate majority leader Harry Reid happily confirmed that he will make sure his home state of Nevada benefits from the stimulus package, via spending targeted for Las Vegas's airport and casinos. To average citizens, that sounds like pork-barrel business as usual. A deal was struck late Friday for a pared-down stimulus package. It must be approved by the full Senate and reconciled with the House version.

As he approaches the three-week mark of his presidency, it's not surprising that Obama remains somewhat in campaign mode. But it's campaign mode without an obvious game plan and some of the eloquence that defined him as a candidate.

A president's acceptance of personal responsibility is a welcome change from the past eight years. But the meltdown around Tom Daschle's nomination as secretary of Health and Human Services reduced Obama from the elegant to the colloquial: "I screwed up."

As a candidate, Obama did many things right. His thinking was always strategic and his speeches were smartly timed. One thing he didn't do was draw any lines within the vast universe of Democratic interest groups; he never said "no" to anyone.

Now, he must. Otherwise, Republicans will keep on tapping into the ideological talking points that didn't work during the presidential campaign.

They are bound to work better now that George W. Bush is no longer president. Obama ran against Republican John McCain. But he beat Bush, not conservatism.

The results of a CBS poll released last week show that Republicans who are advocating an increase in the proportion of tax cuts in the stimulus bill are winning the argument. Asked whether higher government spending or tax cuts for business would be more effective in ending the recession, 59 percent chose tax cuts, while only 22 percent chose government spending. While 51 percent of those polled said they back the concept behind Obama's stimulus package, support for Obama's plan has fallen 12 points since January.

Democrats must do a better job of tying the stimulus package to economic recovery in a way that makes sense to average people. In his speech to House Democrats in Williamsburg, Obama said that unless the stimulus package is passed quickly, more jobs and homes will be lost; more families will go without healthcare; and the country's dependence on foreign oil will continue. "That is the price of inaction," he said.

But even the supposedly nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is challenging Obama's premise. It put out word that his plan would help in the short run but would hurt over time, by vastly increasing government debt.

The president has yet to sell the stimulus package as the best answer to the country's economic woes. That's partly because last year's stimulus package did nothing to stop the slide, let alone turn it around; and partly because his own party hijacked it.

Obama's two daughters have been lobbying for a canine pet for awhile. Maybe they instinctively know what Harry Truman learned from experience.

If you want a friend in the nation's capital, get one that barks but doesn't bite.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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