Obama Got Rolled

Is the new president’s honeymoon over?

Barack Obama had a tough week. He lost Tom Daschle as his nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services and his stimulus bill got clogged in the Senate. But it wasn’t all bad. He signed a bill expanding health care insurance to help 8 million children. And the perks of office keep rolling in. The president will have his first stay at Camp David this weekend, and he took his first official ride on Air Force One, which gave him a chance to practice his salute and wear his nifty new jacket.

To help you keep up with the debates swirling around the Obama presidency, Slate offers this guide to the issues of the week. Here is where the arguments stand on a few key topics.

The Obama Honeymoon

It’s over: Tom Daschle had to resign, shining a bright light on the fact that despite the president’s claims, a number of people in his administration—from his treasury secretary to his nominee for deputy secretary of defense—are insiders who get special treatment. The new administration hasn’t been especially transparent, despite Obama’s promises, and it doesn’t look as if it’s going to get more so. All this undermines Obama’s signature campaign claim that he was going to change Washington. Obama let House Democrats produce a stimulus bill filled with programs that made it easy to caricature the measure as a pork-laden abomination, which Republicans (along with some Democrats) predictably did. What happened to the great communicator’s ability to communicate? Because the president lost control of the process, he has now helped unify House Republicans, Republican governors, and the GOP rank and file—groups that were previously wandering around criticizing each other.

It’s got some time left: Remember back in the Democratic primary, when the consensus was that Obama was too soft, too deliberative, and too nice to win the election? These current gripes remind me of those days. It takes time to govern. If you’re looking for change, look how quickly Obama admitted he’d made a mistake in the Daschle affair. Not only did his contrition show maturity, but as a political matter, it helped him turn the page. He’s still a very popular president who is doing what the American people want: reaching out to Republicans. And if you’re worried about his ability to communicate forcefully, watch his remarks after signing SCHIP legislation or his speech to Senate Democrats. And, finally: While Washington has been focused on process, the president has been signing legislation on everything from health care for children to equal pay for women and minorities. Republicans will be remembered as the party that said no while the economy collapsed.

The Stimulus Bill

Split it in two: According to the Congressional Budget Office, 35 percent of the money in the Senate stimulus bill won’t be spent for at least 18 months. This money could be used to fund measures that produce faster stimulus. As a political matter, this long-term portion of the bill is being used to muddy the debate and build opposition to the whole bill. Let’s vote on these long-term programs in a separate bill so that we can get the quick relief out the door now. Plus, the longer-term projects—on everything from medical records to school renovation—require a little more thought and planning.

Keep it whole: Sure, some of this money doesn’t kick in tomorrow. But companies can start planning today to get ready for it—and that’s simulative. Plus, most experts say the economy is going to be in trouble well past the 18-month timeline you’re fixated on. We need to think long-term. It’s your short-term mindset that got us into this fix in the first place. Besides, if you’re so concerned about expensive items that provide no stimulus, let’s take out that $64 billion alternative minimum tax patch, which doesn’t stimulate anyone. (It gets a D- from the Tax Policy Center for its simulative effect.)


Cap it: As the president said, the high salaries paid to CEOs asking for a government handout are morally abhorrent and fiscally unwise. Think of the caps as a public-safety measure: If CEOs of bailed-out firms were allowed to continue lining their pockets (or their executive offices), they’d be hunted down by an angry mob. Serious harm would result.

Leave it: The government thinks a bank is worth saving but won’t pay the CEO enough to make it worth his while to do the hard work of saving the bank? Half a million bucks certainly won’t attract new talent; good executives can earn more elsewhere. The cap is also unconstitutional. The freedom to enter into contracts is a constitutionally protected right and the federal government cannot make abridgement of that right a condition of a federal benefit.

Screw the cap on more tightly: There should be public shaming. And egg throwing. And there should be even tighter restrictions on executive compensation. Shareholders can vote to blow the $500,000 cap, which means it’s not tight enough. Furthermore, the rules don’t bar other kinds of compensation. An executive making $15 million can now just get the remaining $14,500,000 in restricted stock and stock options, which they’ll get once the government money is paid back. And the compensation cap covers distressed companies seeking special bailouts but would not apply retroactively to those that already have received them (like the $18.4 billion in bonuses New York banks granted themselves last year), and they won’t apply to the big investment banks, either.