The Has-been

So You Had a Bad Day

Why Barack Obama is still better off than he was two weeks ago.

President Barack Obama

The morning after Inauguration Day, Maureen Dowd marveled at “the patience that America is extending to Mr. Obama.” The day after President Obama lost two appointees to tax problems, she chastised him in a column titled, “Well, That Certainly Didn’t Take Long.” No matter how many times the president warns us that the nation’s problems won’t be solved overnight, the chattering classes are already buzzing, “But you’ve had two weeks!”

Don’t let the “Change-o-Meter” get you down: While Tom Daschle’s exit on Tuesday was a deeply painful loss for the Obama White House, the new president is still off to a good start, and the long-term prospects for his agenda are as strong as ever.

Every White House has its share of bad days—and Obama’s first will not be his worst. Obama’s presidential campaign had more good days and fewer bad ones than any campaign in memory. But a streak like that isn’t possible in the White House. A president is lucky to break even; it’s difficult to think of a modern president who had more good days than bad ones. An administration is in real trouble only when those dark days become the norm.

So, here are a few reasons to take heart that Obama is closer to his goals than he was two weeks ago, and not to despair that even Barack Obama can have a bad day:

Obama showed he can take a punch, and learn a lesson. Most Americans root for their President to succeed, and that’s especially true for Obama. (On Wednesday morning, Meredith Vieira opened the Today Show with the heartfelt if sartorially suspect suggestion that after the day he’d just had, Obama might want to borrow Al Roker’s Snuggie.) Obama handled the first bad news of his presidency with class and candor. He took responsibility, took his lumps, and took the lesson to heart. “I screwed up,” he told NBC. “The responsibility era is not never making mistakes. It’s owning up to them and trying to make sure you never repeat them.”

People expect their leaders to make mistakes, but they’re surprised and delighted whenever leaders own up to them. In 1993, Janet Reno became an overnight sensation for taking responsibility for authorizing the FBI’s botched raid at Waco. In 2005, by contrast, Michael Brown became a national punch line when Bush praised him for FEMA’s disastrous response to Katrina.

It’s a gift to be humble. In the early, heady days of the Clinton administration, Sen. Pat Moynihan once warned us, “Anyone willing to admit that they don’t have all the answers is always welcome in my office.” Moynihan worked a little too hard at teaching us that lesson, but his basic point was right: Most administrations learn too late that humility can be a president’s greatest weapon. For example, both Bush administrations had what turned out to be the grand misfortune of becoming too popular too early and overestimated their invincibility as a result.

Obama has already shown himself to be a master of self-deprecation on the stuffed-shirt circuit, joking at Saturday night’s Alfalfa Club dinner that the first dog’s arrival was delayed because “the labradoodle we picked has some problems with back taxes.” That same sense of genuine humility can do an administration good throughout the work week.

Obama’s crusade for change is going strong. A day after losing his HHS nominee, Obama signed into law a sweeping children’s health bill that will provide coverage to 11 million children—the most progress Washington has made on health care in a decade. Daschle’s wisdom and decency will be greatly missed in the tough legislative struggle to broad health care reform. But the ball is already in Congress’ court, and key congressional leaders are prepared to hit the ground running. Obama will no doubt use his Feb. 24 address to the nation to up the pressure on Congress to get the job done.

Likewise, for all the sudden gnashing of teeth over the administration’s economic message, the Senate is probably  on the brink of passing a strong bipartisan bill. The House version left room for improvement, and despite noisy conservative attempts to kill the bill, more well-intentioned grumbling seems likely to produce the desired result: a bill that’s harder to grumble about and destined to land soon on the president’s desk.

The Obama coalition is emerging. In the long run, that may be the most important lesson of the past week: Slowly but surely, Obama might actually succeed in building the post-partisan working majority he promised, notwithstanding the skepticism and reluctance of some on both sides of the aisle.

Journalists were quick to invoke the “rule of three” about nominees’ tax problems but overlooked a remarkable rule of three that few saw coming: With Judd Gregg’s appointment at Commerce, Obama’s Cabinet now includes three members of the opposing party (Gregg, Ray LaHood, and Robert Gates)—which may well set the record. Nowadays, any president would be grateful for three strong defenders from the other party. Not only will Obama be well-served by hearing a broad range of views, but the new members of his team may help him persuade some of their former colleagues to resist the easy no and consider joining a coalition of the willing.

In fact, the economic recovery debate has already jump-started the makings of a promising post-partisan caucus in the Senate. The intense bipartisan negotiations led by Sens. Ben Nelson and Susan Collins could have lasting repercussions beyond the economic package. As Sen. Evan Bayh suggests, that group “might be the president’s best allies, helping him achieve his objective but honoring the reform message he stands for.”

Obama’s graceful rise to the White House left many with the hope that he could somehow permanently suspend the laws of political gravity. The president never harbored that illusion, nor should all of us who root for him. Obama’s success depends not on making the job look easy but on reminding the country that the road ahead will not be.

On bad days at the White House, the sky always looks like it’s raining pianos. But Obama’s quick recovery this week suggests there will be many better days ahead.