Gregg Screwed Obama

Debate-o-Matic: Slate’s guide to this week’s arguments in Washington.

Barack Obama

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.

Judd Gregg’s Departure

Makes Obama look bad: When Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party early in the Bush administration claiming the president was too much of an ideologue, it became a symbol for Bush’s my-way-or-the-highway approach. It wasn’t a perfect symbol, but it stuck. Judd Gregg will play that role for Obama. The senator realized, once inside the Obama circle, that the president really was pushing a more liberal agenda. Either Obama isn’t willing to do the hard work necessary to be truly bipartisan or there are just some philosophical differences that make bipartisanship impossible. Obama wanted Gregg to be a powerless token, and he didn’t want to be. Now he’s a powerful token of just how thin Obama’s bipartisan instincts really are. Plus, as the fourth appointee to withdraw in four weeks, Gregg makes the administration look amateurish. Let’s start a pool on who will be the fifth next week.

Makes Obama look good: Gregg flaked out. He realized he was temperamentally ill-suited to serving in an administration—any administration. This story is less about Obama’s level of bipartisanship and more about Gregg’s psychology. As a political matter, Gregg’s departure keeps Obama from constantly having to keep an ideologue like Gregg happy and, more broadly, it makes the opposition look foolish for clinging to absolutist views. Gregg, like his party, is stuck in the past. Now Obama doesn’t have to do a single further bipartisan act. He’s tried to be bipartisan, and voters have seen that. Now Obama doesn’t have to be held hostage to Republicans who make unrealistic demands and then complain that the president isn’t being bipartisan when Obama doesn’t meet them.

Passage of the Stimulus Bill

A win for Obama: The president passed an enormous piece of legislation in a short time, bringing relief to millions. He also gained political capital by banking an achievement. Voters want action, and Obama gave it to them. By the end of the week, he’d increased support for the stimulus bill to nearly 60 percent, and he remained very popular. The Republicans now have embraced their role as the party of no, which is perhaps why they are so very unpopular.

Barely a win: Yes, the president got his piece of legislation—and he can have it. The bill is more than 1,000 pages and almost certainly contains junk that he won’t want to live with—and that the American people will dislike once they learn about it. The average weekly paycheck will see a $13 increase, which is hardly stimulative. He over-promised in Peoria when he said the bill would prompt “a new wave of innovation, activity and construction will be unleashed all across America.” The bill can’t do that, and the CEO of Caterpillar, the equipment manufacturer Obama was visiting in Peoria, contradicted Obama’s claim that the stimulus bill would bring jobs back to the company. What’s more, for a bill that doesn’t do much, Obama damaged his reputation as a bipartisan (he got only three Republican votes in the Senate instead of the 20 he once thought he’d get) and also made a joke of his promises to act transparently. Those are two key aspects of his presidential campaign that he’s just traded away.

Second Round of TARP Funds

The plan is a mess: In a time of economic uncertainty, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s announcement only raised more questions. His plan was unspecific about crucial details, particularly those related to the proposed public-private investment fund. The markets reacted accordingly. The Dow dropped more than 300 points after Geithner announced his plan. The lack of specificity made the president look foolish, too. On Monday, President Obama promised Geithner would offer specific detailed plans. On Tuesday, when he didn’t, it made Obama look either uninformed or misleading.

It’s a good first step: The plan for distributing the second round of TARP funds solves the errors in the first $350 billion payout by increasing transparency and accountability. That alone should make consumers more confident in the Obama plan than they were in the Bush plan. Also, you need some flexibility when dealing with an unprecedented economic crisis, which is why Geithner was smart to leave some room to maneuver. The market reaction wasn’t good, but what does the market know? It liked the first TARP bailout, which everyone now has decided was a disaster.