Last night's presser was fascinating to me for one core reason: it was the first moment that this new president found an equilibrium between campaign and government. It was the end of the very beginning.
Sometimes, we forget just how momentous this past election was. It was momentous because it culminated in a rejection of the politics of the past eight years, and also, to some extent, an understanding that a very new direction was required given the gravity of the many crises facing the US and the world. The only reason Barack Obama is at that podium is the crisis we are in. In any other time, Hillary would be standing there, or McCain. He was elected to change things profoundly, and as he took office, the hurricane forces of economic collapse strengthened. We all know this. Without this context, none of it makes sense. With this context, everything makes sense.
I'm not sure the press corps fully gets this, and I'm not sure that matters very much. Their job is to be polite assholes, asking questions the president would prefer not to answer, and generally being loathed by the public. They did their job better last night than until now, I thought, because they are finally settling in with the new president. They're human too. They had to cover a phenomenon wrapped in a campaign and then a historic transition. They had to prove they weren't saps but also make sure they weren't being unreasonable of a new president with a mountain of problems just weeks into office. After two months, it's beginning to feel normal - with the banter and sharpness and interaction a healthy relationship with the press requires. They did good. But Obama also noticeably avoided the MSM hierarchy. He gets the mood. And seriously: he's obviously up to the job. That was as competent a presser as I've seen in my years covering politics, and light years better than his predecessor's.
And what does Obama's response to these multiple crises look like two months in at this point? It looks to me like relentless, detailed, reasonable pragmatism. It is what I hoped for. The Geithner package is neither right nor left: it's about solving the problem within the existing structures as far as possible. Will it work? I cannot know. But it is not dividing one half of the country against another; it is resisting the most radical and irreversible move; it is part of an entire package designed to move the world economy out of a dangerous abyss; if it fails, nationalization remains a list-ditch option. I see it as a good faith effort, and prepared meticulously in the time-table dictated by the crisis and simple human competence - not a political product to be wheeled out as marketing. It is a serious project that the president asks us to keep close track of and for which he will remain accountable. What more can we ask for at this point?
For me, the big imponderable is Obama's insistence that we move forward on energy, healthcare reform, and education while navigating this economic storm. He kept saying that these things are essential for growth and growth is essential to rescuing our public finances. He's not wrong about this. But we are perfectly entitled to question the methods and means.
I remain unconvinced that cap-and-trade is the most effective way to transition ourselves into a new energy world without depressing the economy. On healthcare, I fear that restraining costs means rationing in the end and expanding the power of the public sector in ways that will reduce patient choice and slow innovation and research. At the same time, I can see that the combination of our current expectations and the revolution in medical science will mean huge increases in spending which, because healthcare is distributed through third party insurance, is very hard to curtail without more government.
But Obama is right to ask back: so what do you propose? On energy, I'd say a gas tax hike balanced by a payroll tax cut. On healthcare, I'm not so sure. It's hard to oppose the upgrade in information technology as a cost-saver. I can see the merits of getting more people insured. As long as any reform is careful to prevent the private sector being squeezed out of business, I'm open to persuasion. But I'm more cautious on this than most, I guess. I value the private healthcare system in the US, that, for all its faults, has innovated medicines that have saved my life. Education? Sure - but only if there's real accountability for bad teachers.
What about the mounting long-term debt? That's the biggie. What I heard from Obama last night was: let us get through the next couple of years and then I promise we'll tackle the long-term problem. He didn't say that explicitly, but that's the sense I get. Am I wrong to trust him? Maybe. But I don't have to trust him on this for long. If he doesn't make a serious effort on entitlement reform in his first term, screw him. But this also means those of us who favor it need to argue for its fiscal merits - as well as ensure that defense is pruned as well.
Obama is a president who is eager to lay it all out. He understands that the elites - who are used to thinking ideologically - will be the hardest audience. But if he can talk directly, pragmatically, specifically to average Americans, he thinks he can talk them round. His confidence in this is a little breath-taking. And yet, when you see him in action, it seems foolish to under-estimate him.
I said it in the campaign and I'll say it again. He has flaws; he deserves pushback; he needs criticism. But we're lucky to have him right now, in my fallible judgment. Extremely lucky.
(Photos: Mandel Ngan and Alex Wong/AFP/Getty.)
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