By the time President Obama landed back on American soil last Thursday, politicians on Capitol Hill were beginning to show the effects of a week without adult supervision. Two Republican members of the Joint Economic Committee greeted Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner by demanding his resignation—the same outlandish demand that Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio had made on MSNBC the day before. The House Finance Committee overwhelmingly passed a Fed-bashing amendment sponsored by strange bedfellows, Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Alan Grayson. The Congressional Black Caucus temporarily tabled one of the administration's top priorities, financial regulatory reform, to demand action on another top priority, jobs.
Over the weekend, the Obama administration scored a historic breakthrough when the Senate agreed to begin debating a health reform bill. How did the president's supporters choose to celebrate? Environmental activist Bill McKibben accused Obama of "fibbing and spinning" on climate change and wished he could be more like the president of the Maldives. William Greider chided Obama for "troubling similarities" to Hoover. Maureen Dowd whined that the president should be more like Sarah Palin.
Presidents get used to abuse from their enemies, and sometimes even welcome it. But when supporters start developing Palin envy, a president is right to wonder: With rants like that, who needs enemies?
Obama doesn't deserve all the whining. He's off to a good start and poised to rebound strongly. Like every one of his predecessors, he just temporarily set off Washington's most annoying political gyroscope. When a president's job approval percentage rating is in the 50s and 60s, everyone in Washington thinks his success was his or her idea. When the same president's approval rating dips below 50 percent, everyone in Washington thinks his or her idea is the president's only chance of survival.
In September 2008, I went to a breakfast meeting that the Obama campaign held for about 100 Washington insiders. Unfortunately for the poor staffers who had flown out from Chicago, the briefing took place during the only week all campaign long when Obama, not McCain, was the one below 50 percent. A parade of panicked politicos offered bad advice on how to right the ship. I left the meeting immensely reassured that the campaign hadn't been doing any of what Washington insisted it must do.
When political and policy challenges pile up, what administrations need—and often crave—is good advice. What supporters usually bombard them with instead is whining. One Huffington Post commentator urged sacking Geithner for being "Obama's Rumsfeld." Arianna herself just accused Geithner and Larry Summers of turning unemployment into "Obama's Katrina." In a Daily Beast post called " Amateur Hour at the White House," Les Gelb insisted that Obama's Asian trip was such a failure that the president should shake up his national security team and "take responsibility himself, as President Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs fiasco."
To his credit, Obama hasn't taken the bait. In October, he joked about his supporters' impatience: "Why haven't you solved world hunger yet? It's been nine months." Like clockwork, a few days later, activists and members of Congress complained that the administration was moving too slowly on world hunger.
For the president's sake, let's hope that this Thanksgiving, supporters can stop the whinging long enough to be thankful for the progress they've made. By any objective measure, Obama has had a successful first year. He inherited an economy on the brink of depression; 10 months later, the economy is recovering, even if the job market is lagging. His economic plan has helped avert a series of disasters—from the automobile, housing, and financial industries going out of business to state and local government going into default. He has signed new laws on national service, equal pay, hate crimes, and many other overdue concerns; made real strides on energy; and launched a quiet revolution in education.
Not least, Obama's top legislative priority, health reform, is now almost close enough to smell the Rose Garden. After six presidents have tried, health reform may be just six weeks away from finally happening.
In the new year, Obama can channel the country's continuing hunger for change to good advantage. With the centerpiece of his 2009 agenda near completion, he can spend December preparing a plan to accelerate job growth and innovation and address the kitchen-table concerns of the struggling middle class in 2010 and beyond. Our national to-do list may be daunting and long, but that's what Obama meant by a new era of responsibility: more work, less whining.
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