Commentary: The test for Obama will lie in the pass/fail of stimulus
WASHINGTON -- The coming week will test the strength of President Obama and the Democrats: Will they lose their nerve, or will they face down a rapidly forming conventional wisdom that will allow them to claim "victory" only if their economic stimulus package passes with substantial Republican support?
Up to now, Obama has handled his own public image with the same dexterity he showed in the campaign. His outreach to Republicans is popular because a streak of anti-partisanship has run through the American soul since the founding of the republic. From the time he announced his candidacy, Obama has broadened his appeal by speaking to this mistrust of parties.
The president's quest for a new tone in Washington also has a practical motive. He believes that economic recovery is about psychology as well as money and that Americans will have more confidence in the future if they see the nation's politicians cooperating to resolve the crisis.
This may be true, but it creates a problem. If achieving bipartisanship takes priority over the actual content of policy, then Republicans are handed a powerful weapon. In theory, they can keep moving the bipartisan bar indefinitely. And each concession to their sensibilities threatens solidarity in the president's own camp.
That's why last week's unanimous House Republican opposition to the stimulus plan was so important. For the most part, the Republicans escaped attack for rank partisanship. Instead, what should have been hailed as an administration victory was cast in large parts of the media as a kind of defeat: Obama had placed a heavy emphasis on bipartisanship and he failed to achieve it.
Worse from Obama's point of view, Republicans have used the stimulus fight to drive a wedge between the president and his loyal troops in Congress. Some Republicans argued that while the White House was trying to reach out, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants were insisting on a "partisan" bill -- even though the measure was largely based on the administration's own proposals.
Obama prides himself on playing the long game and in refusing to be distracted by political chatter. He has been known to observe that it is he, and not those who criticized him for insufficient toughness, who is seated in the Oval Office.
Moreover, the Senate should, in principle, be less partisan than the House, partly because 10 Republican senators represent states that Obama carried last year. Surely they will be more accommodating than House Republicans whose constituencies are more homogeneously conservative.
The administration's assumption is that the Senate will make modest changes in the bill -- adding a few tax cuts and shaving some spending to appease Republicans -- and that the package will arrive on the president's desk having received enough cross-party support to carry that treasured bipartisan label.
This process could have the ironic effect of making the package even bigger to include extra tax cuts and additional infrastructure spending that might appease various Republican senators. The GOP may be rhetorically anti-government, but its politicians still love to deliver roads, bridges and water projects.
That might be an acceptable outcome for the White House, since there is a strong strain of economic opinion that sees the current stimulus, large as it is, as being still too small to give the economy the jolt it needs.
The real test is whether Obama is willing to fight for a stimulus bill that achieves some of his larger objectives. The aspects of the House bill that Republicans and conservative commentators have so eviscerated are the very parts that take substantial steps toward implementing the president's own priorities.
Obama placed a heavy bet during his campaign on a promise to reform the heath care system. To the great consternation of conservatives, the House stimulus bill takes big steps toward broadening the number of Americans government would help to obtain health insurance. Will those provisions be protected in the final bill?
The president has spoken passionately about the inadequacy of our schools and the increasing difficulty young Americans are having in affording higher education. The House stimulus bill includes a lot of education money. Will students be thrown over the side in pursuit of a nebulous cross-party comity?
No doubt our supremely calm president is certain that in the end, all will be well. But Rahm Emanuel, his spirited chief of staff, had it right: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Just how high a price is Obama willing to pay for a handful of Republican votes?
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is email@example.com.