Friday, February 6, 2009

Still Having A Ball?

It took more than six years for George W. Bush to admit making a presidential mistake. It took Barack Obama less than two weeks.

This past week, we were treated to an odd sight in our newsroom. A glance up at the bank of TV screens showed President Obama on five channels at once - except this wasn't a State of the Union speech or some other live event broadcast on every network simultaneously. This was the evening news, on CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox. And there was the president, with the American flag strategically positioned behind his cocked head, with cutaways to a thoughtful-looking network anchor seated in an Oval Office chair, saying "I screwed up" and "It's my fault" and "I take full responsibility" to each one, over and over again (referring to Tom Daschle's tax problems and the withdrawal of his nomination at HHS). It was coincidence that every network aired its taped presidential interview at the exact same time; the rest was careful White House choreography. The exact same shot - almost identical words - given prominent placement by networks eager to trumpet their Oval Office access.

A student of history to be sure, President Obama is transparently determined not to repeat the mistakes of past presidents (even those who never admitted making any). Jimmy Carter was a notorious control freak; Barack Obama is delegating key White House tasks - not all of them, but just enough. Bill Clinton tackled thorny issues too quickly, without Congressional input; Obama's going slowly on some, and is involving Congressional leaders, from both parties, at every turn. President Bush - well, we all know what he did wrong, and in most cases, Obama's doing the exact opposite. A snarky Dick Cheney needled the Obama team this week for its multi-layered flow chart of many czars. You could almost hear the derisive collective snort from the Obama White House. The last thing they intend to do is simply photocopy the Bush White House Way and repeat it.

But that too could be a mistake. Surely, something must have been done intelligently in the Bush administration. There must be some systems worth replicating.

Well, maybe not.

So here was President Obama granting interviews, so early in his administration, taking the blame and moving on. Days before, he roamed the halls of the Capitol, meeting face-to-face with the loyal opposition, on their turf. It's certainly refreshing to have a seemingly candid, articulate, fully-functioning adult running our country. I'm still waiting for the news conferences he said he would have on a weekly basis. If you're keeping score, that may be his first broken campaign promise. He will finally have one, Monday evening, in prime time, no less. Let's see if he has another the following week.

As for the economy, well, so far, the only job creation has been at the White House. President Obama is cramming people into the West Wing. Do we really need a czar for this and a czar for that? Is his model Abraham Lincoln or Peter the Great? It remains to be seen if the Obama White House will be brilliant and efficient, or a top-heavy nest of sniping bureaucrats mud-wrestling for power. Then there's the stimulus package. Every liberal or Democratic interest group in America has emailed me, begging me to lobby Congress to pass it, and to make sure their pet project is included. If George Bush had proposed this package, would you support it? Is this the best way to spend our hard-earned trillions? More importantly, will it work?

We don't know, of course. We can only hope (unless we're Rush Limbaugh). I worry that it won't. I'm not a big fan of deficit spending. I don't believe in it in my own economy, and I certainly don't like it on the macro level. Bill Clinton's deficit reduction was, I think, the most significant accomplishment of his presidency. The red ink run up by the last three Republican presidents has been a nation-weakening embarrassment. But now Obama is poised not only to repeat that mistake, but to multiply it, with an annual deficit next year perhaps exceeding one trillion dollars. No nation can sustain that level of debt. I realize that in this instance, Obama's historical touchstone is not Lincoln but FDR, but unless there's a world war coming that we don't know about, there's no guarantee that we, too, can spend our way out of this economic collapse.

But then, we've got to do something, right? There seems to be agreement on that. As long as these moves don't turn us into the Weimar Republic.

Was it really just two weeks ago that I was crammed into the Newseum at the Huffington Post Ball on inaugural eve? That is hard to believe. There was an incredible air of hope and optimism and celebration there. Exuberant celebrities counted down at midnight to the end of the Bush Era, and the dawn of Obama Time. Bloggers and pundits and liberal activists partied shoulder-to-shoulder, jockeying for hors d'oeuvres and dancing the night away to Sting and Sheryl Crow and Will.i.am. They had shivered for 20 minutes on a long VIP line just to get inside. There was a jubilant Howard Dean, and a shimmying Demi Moore, with kids and Ashton Kutcher in tow, and a grumpy Robert DeNiro. Here came Don King's hair, and there went Dustin Hoffman and Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx (at one point, a friend pointed out that there were at least five Oscar-winning Best Actors on the dance floor). Ben Affleck grabbed a cheese puff from a passing tray. Vaguely recognizable TV stars mingled with CNN talking heads. I ran into one of our favorite Bay Area Congresswomen, Blue Dog Democrat Ellen Tauscher, with her new fiance. We bonded over our wedding plans.

At one point, the dance floor crowd surged into a previously off-limits area, and a tall, beautiful woman grabbed my hand and pulled me to safety. This woman is strong, I thought. Then I saw that her other hand was being pulled by her massive husband - Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. We popped out into an open space, where paparazzi shouted "Forest! Forest!" (since my friends call me Forrest Gump, I of course thought they were shouting at me). Whitaker obliged, smiling and waving for the cameras. Somewhere there's a great picture or two of a beaming Forest Whitaker, his gorgeous wife and a short, startled-looking, bald guy holding her hand.

(Okay, those two paragraphs should satisfy those of you who have been begging for the HuffPo celeb ball report. You know who you are. To the rest of you, thanks for the indulgence).

That party was all about dispatching the sorry past and embracing the possibilities of the immediate future. You didn't really think it would be stumble-free, did you? Barack Obama already has to replace three of his original Cabinet choices, and as far as Congressional Republicans are concerned, the honeymoon is already over (if you have paid all your taxes, please send your resume to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Attention: Rahm Emanuel). Some form of the stimulus package will pass, festooned with Lord knows what. If it doesn't work, the bloom will be off Obama's rose before you can say "one-term president." I have been cautioning starry-eyed friends for two years that this man is not the Messiah. Clearly, he's learned from the past, but that's no guarantee that he's not doomed to repeat some of it anyway. Nobody said this would be easy, least of all him. Euphoria wears off, and reality sets in. Two weeks ago, Obama made history. Now it's all about creating the future, and that may take a lot longer.