It looks like a win but feels like a loss.
The party-line vote in favor of the stimulus package could have been more, could have produced not only a more promising bill but marked the beginning of something new, not a postpartisan era (there will never be such a thing and never should be; the parties exist to fight through great political questions) but a more bipartisan one forced by crisis and marked by—well, let’s call it seriousness.
President Obama could have made big history here. Instead he just got a win. It’s a missed opportunity.
It’s a win because of the obvious headline: Nine days after inauguration, the new president achieves a major Congressional victory, House passage of an economic stimulus bill by a vote of 244-188. It wasn’t even close. This is major.
But do you know anyone, Democrat or Republican, dancing in the street over this? You don’t. Because most everyone knows it isn’t a good bill, and knows that its failure to receive a single Republican vote, not one, suggests the old battle lines are hardening. Back to the Crips versus the Bloods. Not very inspiring.
The president will enjoy short-term gain. In the great circle of power, to win you have to look like a winner, and to look like a winner you have to win. He did and does. But for the long term, the president made a mistake by not forcing the creation of a bill Republicans could or should have supported.
Consider the moment. House Republicans had conceded that dramatic action was needed and had grown utterly supportive of the idea of federal jobs creation on a large scale. All that was needed was a sober, seriously focused piece of legislation that honestly tried to meet the need, one that everyone could tinker with a little and claim as their own. Instead, as Rep. Mike Pence is reported to have said to the president, “Know that we’re praying for you. . . . But know that there has been no negotiation [with Republicans] on the bill—we had absolutely no say.” The final bill was privately agreed by most and publicly conceded by many to be a big, messy, largely off-point and philosophically chaotic piece of legislation. The Congressional Budget Office says only 25% of the money will even go out in the first year. This newspaper, in its analysis, argues that only 12 cents of every dollar is for something that could plausibly be called stimulus.
What was needed? Not pork, not payoffs, not eccentric base-pleasing, group-greasing forays into birth control as stimulus, as the speaker of the House dizzily put it before being told to remove it.
“Business as usual.” “That’s Washington.” But in 2008 the public rejected business as usual. That rejection is part of what got Obama elected.
Instead the air of D.C. dithering continues, and this while the Labor Department reported Thursday what everyone knew was coming, increased unemployment. The number of continuing claims for unemployment insurance as of Jan. 17 was 4.78 million, the highest in the 42 years they’ve been keeping records. Starbucks, Time Warner, Home Depot, Pfizer: The AP’s count is 125,000 layoffs since January began.
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People are getting the mood of the age in their inboxes. How many emails have you received the past few months from acquaintances telling you in brisk words meant to communicate optimism and forestall pity that “it’s been a great ride,” but they’re “moving on” to “explore new opportunities”? And there’s a broad feeling one detects, a kind of psychic sense, some sort of knowledge in the collective unconscious, that we lived through magic times the past half-century, and now the nonmagic time has begun, and it won’t be over next summer. That’s not the way it will work. It will last a while.
There’s a sense among many, certainly here in New York, that we somehow had it too good too long, a feeling part Puritan, part mystic and obscurely guilty, that some bill is coming due. Hard to get a stimulus package that addresses that. (The guilt was part of the power of Blago. He’s the last American who doesn’t feel guilt. He thinks something is moral because he did it. He’s like a good-natured Idi Amin, up there yammering about how he’s a poor boy who only wanted to protect the people of Chicago from the flu. You wish you could believe it! You wish he really were what he is in his imagination, a hero battling dark forces against the odds.)
I think there is an illness called Goldmansachs Head. I think it’s in the DSM. When you have Goldmansachs Head, the party’s never over. You take private planes to ask for bailout money, you entertain customers at high-end spas while your writers prep your testimony, you take and give huge bonuses as the company tanks. When you take the kids camping, you bring a private chef. Goldmansachs Head is Bernie Madoff complaining he’s feeling cooped up in the penthouse. It is the delusion that the old days continue and the old ways prevail and you, Prince of the Abundance, can just keep rolling along. Here is how you know if someone has GSH: He has everything but a watch. He doesn’t know what time it is.
I remember the father in the movie script of “Dr. Zhivago,” inviting what’s left of his family, huddled in rooms in what had been their mansion, picking up the stump of a stogie and inviting them to watch the lighting of “the last cigar in Moscow.”
When you have GSH, you never think it’s the last cigar.
But you don’t have to be on Wall Street to have GSH. Congress has it too. That’s what the stimulus bill was about—not knowing what time it is, not knowing the old pork-barrel, group-greasing ways are over, done, embarrassing. When you create a bill like that, it doesn’t mean you’re a pro, it doesn’t mean you’re a tough, no-nonsense pol. It means you’re a slob.
That’s how the Democratic establishment in the House looks, not like people who are responding to a crisis, or even like people who are ignoring a crisis, but people who are using a crisis. Our hopeful, compelling new president shouldn’t have gone with this bill. He made news this week by going to the House to meet with Republicans. He could have made history by listening to them.
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A final point: In the time since his inauguration, Mr. Obama has been on every screen in the country, TV and computer, every day. He is never not on the screen. I know what his people are thinking: Put his image on the age. Imprint the era with his face. But it’s already reaching saturation point. When the office is omnipresent, it is demystified. Constant exposure deflates the presidency, subtly robbing it of power and making it more common. I keep the television on a lot, and somewhere in the 1990s I realized that Bill Clinton was never not in my living room. He was always strolling onto the stage, pointing at things, laughing, talking. This is what the Obama people are doing, having the boss hog the screen. They should relax. The race is long.
As a matter of fact, they should focus on that: The race is long. Run seriously.