Michael Gerson / Aug. 7, 2009

The End of the Honeymoon

WASHINGTON – Barack Obama’s political honeymoon is now over.

It was steamy and nice while it lasted. The 44th president was elected as a voice of reason transcending stale ideological debates and a symbol of unity in a nation long afflicted by bigotry. He seemed, on brief public acquaintance, to be pragmatic, positive, steady, moderate and thoughtful. In the months following his election, Obama expanded his support well beyond the coalition that had voted for him in November, attracting many seniors and white men – working-class and college-educated – who had supported John McCain.

But, as Ron Brownstein argued last week on NationalJournal.com, recent polls have revealed a president “back to something like square one in his political coalition.” Obama’s core support remains strong. His post-election gains, however, have largely dissipated. According to Brownstein, the president “failed to convert many voters who gave him a second look after preferring John McCain last year.” Obama still dominates the political landscape, but he has not changed its contours.

Honeymoons always end. But it is fair to ask: What did Obama use this initial period of unique standing and influence to achieve? It will seem strange to history, and probably, eventually, to Obama himself, that the president’s main expenditure of political capital and largest legislative achievement was a $787 billion stimulus package he did not design, and which ended up complicating the rest of his policy agenda. Such a pleasant honeymoon – yet all we got was this lousy stimulus bill.

President Obama staked the initial reputation of his administration on the wisdom, restraint and economic innovation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic congressional leadership. It was a mistake. The legislation they produced plugged the fiscal holes in state budgets and Medicaid, and indulged eight years of pent-up Democratic spending demands on priorities from education to child care to Amtrak. The package did little to promote investment, job creation and economic growth. By one estimate, about 12 cents of every dollar spent was devoted to genuine economic stimulus. While Obama himself remains popular, support for his largest legislative achievement now stands at 34 percent.

This massive expenditure became the political context for the health care debate. Because the national debt has increased by more than $1 trillion since Obama took office, the president was forced to make his case for health reform based on long-term cost savings. An immediate increase in spending, he argued, would be more than offset by eventual reductions in federal health spending.

But this case collapsed in a series of Congressional Budget Office estimates stating that both House and Senate health approaches would expand deficits during the current 10-year budget window and beyond. As it stands, Democratic plans create an expensive new health entitlement, make promises of cost savings that are insufficient or nebulous, raise taxes in economically destructive ways and cost more to the government in the long term.

Once again, Obama deferred to Democratic congressional leaders instead of producing a detailed plan of his own. Once again, their failures have become his own.

All this has combined to raise serious public concerns about spending, deficits and debt – the main ideological achievement of Obama’s political honeymoon, but probably not one he intended. The administration’s primary economic spokesmen – Tim Geithner and Larry Summers – have hinted at the eventual need for broad tax increases to close the deficit. But the tax hikes required for Democratic health reform have an opportunity cost; they can’t be used in a future deficit reduction deal. And such a deal would certainly require the president to break his unequivocal pledge not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year. No amount of administration trial balloons or explanation – “Golly, the Republicans messed things up even worse than we thought” – will make this broken promise palatable.

So these are the main accomplishments of the Obama honeymoon: a widely criticized stimulus package, a health debate poorly begun, and a growing, potentially consuming deficit problem. The initial period of Obama’s presidency has revealed an odd mixture of boldness and timidity. A bold, even fiscally reckless, embrace of the priorities of the Democratic left. A timid, and politically unwise, deference to the views and approaches of the Democratic congressional leadership.

Obama can, of course, recover, as other presidents have done before. But he did not take full advantage of his honeymoon – and he will not get it back.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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