By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 2/7/2009 11:05:44 AM ET 2009-02-07T16:05:44

By this time next week, the White House will have quite an accomplishment topping their list of early victories — passage of a massive economic stimulus package in less than a month.

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And for the White House, next week can’t come soon enough.

They know they will figure out a way to pass this package. But more importantly, passing it will give them a chance at a fresh start. And it will teach them some important lessons about how to move forward when they present even tougher asks to Congress and the American people.

A couple of things have struck me while watching this White House attempt to pass this first big bill.

First, they seemed to stop using the tools that got them to the White House in the first place. President Obama gave very few direct speeches to the American people and made few attempts to go local with supporters. It’s been a top down approach to governing in these first few weeks.

Second, the Obama White House forgot a few things about what it’s like to have nothing left to lose – the exact position the Republicans found themselves in.

It not hard to find something wrong with a bill as large as this stimulus package. Republicans (with the help Matt Drudge) did a great job at finding what I call the bumper-sticker negatives, be it contraceptives or STD treatment or sod for the National Mall.

But what should have the Obama administration been prepared for?

Extra Scrutiny
First, the administration should have expected extra scrutiny for their first bill.

Obama never should have allowed his first major piece of legislation to be written largely by a man elected to Congress when the president was only 8 years old. I’m referring to House Appropriations Chair David Obey.

I’ve noted many times here and in “First Read” the stunning lack of change inside the leadership of the House Democratic caucus. The roster of current committee chairs is not exactly a profile of change Obama outlined during the campaign.

Some day the public might actually revolt against the undemocratic system of seniority that allows Congress to keep the old ways of Washington engrained into the culture of Congress.

My guess is the White House will be much more involved in crafting future legislation facing this much press and scrutiny. They will either find support from members of Congress who don’t have as many pet projects, or they will convince the leadership that they ought to show some signs of change.

The GOP has nothing left to lose
Obama’s efforts at bipartisanship are in many ways just what he promised throughout the campaign. If he weren’t talking bipartisanship now he’d be facing even more criticism about Republican involvement in this stimulus.

The cynical question should be what do the Republicans accomplish politically by cooperating with Obama? Will the 15 or so Republicans in the House and perhaps five in the Senate who support Obama on the stimulus get a free pass from voters? Or will the Democrats get the credit while collectively the Republicans gain nothing?

If the stimulus does not work, and the Republicans are seen as the party that offered an alternative, they stand to benefit.

We may like to think politics is a battle of ideas and that the best idea wins out. But that’s not true in most elections. Most elections are about the worst ideas losing, not the best ideas winning. Democrats have control of both houses of Congress and the White House because the country got fed up with the Republican rule, not necessarily because voters saw more merit in the Democrats. Eventually our country rewards the party out of power – those seen as not responsible.

Over time Democrats have a chance to reinforce their majorities and political dominance if they prove that their ideas work. The economic numbers in four years could have a lot to say about that.

They believed their own hype
My colleague, Andrea Mitchell, refers to this syndrome as an inauguration sugar high. Perhaps it was burnout. Perhaps they watched a little too much TV and forgot how they got to the White House.

Regardless, the Obama team, starting with the president, certainly seemed a tad haughty, acting as if their lofty rhetoric was enough to cause Congress to bow and the stimulus bill to magically pass. Obviously, that’s not the way Washington works. Ironically, the Obama folks spent two years telling voters change wasn’t going to be easy, only to act in their first two weeks as if passing an $800 billion stimulus bill should be easy.

The Good News?
The Obama White House has learned these hard lessons in their first month in office and, more importantly, learned these lessons without sacrificing a major piece of legislation. The White House won’t be caught flat-footed again as they move to sell the massive financial bailout (to be announced on Monday). Nor will they again believe they can get Congress to simply bow to health care or energy reform without a serious campaign-style effort.

History will one day record the administration’s effort to pass the stimulus package as an amazing feat, especially given the size of the bill. In our 24/7 news cycle, everything is nit picked, something it seems the Obama White House forgot.

Keep in mind, Obama has been caught flatfooted before, only to recover without suffering a major setback. Remember the summer of ’07, the Rev. Wright fiasco, or the start of the general election?

Obama will be best served if he embraces his own campaign rhetoric and remembers the sophisticated operation he built — the one which got him elected.

Carrying Indiana was hard. So is passing a bill in Congress.

The smart White Houses put the same efforts into winning an election as they do into passing an agenda.

The Obama folks may be getting that now… now that they are off their inauguration sugar high.

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