It was kind of weird to be standing in front of the White House last week and not protesting anything. I'd been there so many times before, but always with a sign or a shout or at the very least a sneer: the White House wasn't a symbol of hope as much as it was a monument to everything that infuriated me about the United States of America. The Reagan years, the Bush years, the Clinton years, the Bush years ... I used to say, and it wasn't that long ago, that I didn't think the United States could ever elect a president I could actually believe in.
And late Saturday night, I was sitting in a hotel bar with a bunch of cynical editors and publishers from a bunch of cynical alternative newspapers and everyone was talking about walking over to the White House. We knew the Obamas weren't even there (they'd gone to Camp David for the weekend). And there wasn't much to see, particularly late at night. But it felt like the street in front of the White House was just a cool place to be.
Barack Obama has a remarkable amount of good will built up. He has a honeymoon period like no president has had in my lifetime. The left is generally patient, the center seems enthralled, and the right is a lot more muted in its criticism than we were when, say, Ronald Reagan took office on a wave of popularity. And his political capital is already getting tested.
It was astonishing listening to some of the debate over the stimulus plan. I'm not thrilled with the way the thing is coming down it's too small, it's too focused on the private sector, there's too much in tax cuts and not enough in spending. But the way the Republicans have been talking about the bill, particularly in the Senate, is mind-boggling.
John McCain (didn't he just lose an election or something?) was blubbering away about "pork." Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona insisted that the bill "wastes a ton of money." Sen. Susan Collins of Maine introduced (and remarkably enough, got passed) an amendment reading: "None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project." As if parks, theaters, and art centers are the same as casinos. (Remember, the Works Progress Administration, one of the most successful parts of the New Deal, built theaters and parks and put artists to work, something missing from this bill).
Look: the only way the federal government can pull us out of this tailspin is with huge amounts of spending. You can't spend $800 billion without wasting something, somewhere; some dollars will wind up getting stolen or diverted or used for the wrong thing, and some of what's in the bill will be foolish.
But the notion that the people who created this mess, who used tax cuts and lax regulations to wreck the economy, should be criticizing government spending is more than a little nuts. You have to wonder: Why does anybody listen to these people any more? And why is Obama even trying to work with them?
Obama's first prime-time press conference was a little shaky (although it's hard to blame a guy who's got the future of the world's largest economy in his hands for not having a clear position on the A-Rod steroid scandal right now). The stress on Obama is already showing.
But he still has the political capital, and he ought to be playing a little more public hardball.