By Political Reporter
NBC News
updated 2/10/2009 11:15:27 AM ET 2009-02-10T16:15:27

The stimulus bill survived a crucial test vote in the U.S. Senate Monday night and faces a final Senate vote Tuesday afternoon. 

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Ahead is a difficult round of further negotiations aimed at producing a final House-Senate compromise. Democratic leaders vowed to deliver reconciled legislation for President Barack Obama's signature within a few days.

But none of this has been easy.

Democrats lost the public relations war and control of the message, allowing inflammatory items like contraceptives, sexually transmitted disease prevention and sod for the National Mall to dominate the conversation.

The bill's passage has also been complicated by Obama's nominee tax problems, culminating in his prime-time round of apologies.

All of it has Democratic strategists privately furious. But politically, none of it may matter a week from now for the President.

"In the end if it works like it looks like it might — which means it goes through with 60-plus votes, and works out some kinks [in the package] for a sizable majority in both houses — and it is signed into law, a week from now the basic story will be huge victory for Barack Obama," said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "It will be the largest economic package passed in the history of the country, with unprecedented quick action and probably bipartisan support. That will be huge for him."

The bumpy ride provides four lessons for this administration:

  • The little things count — They're what got you here
  • Use the bully pulpit — and frame what you're doing
  • Want the ball — Maintain more control over legislation
  • Reality check — Are Republicans really your friends?

The little things count
On the trail, Candidate Obama emphasized "The ways of Washington must change."

This stimulus adventure should serve as a prime example that the "ways of Washington" — specifically the legislative process — likely won't ever change.

"I long ago stopped trying to understand the ways of Congress," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs quipped at the White House briefing Friday.

The president and his campaign-weary team, though, need to get in campaign mode again and own "the ways of Congress." Leading up to the election, they understood the rules and played the game better than anyone else. They need to do the same in Washington.

"You can't always be at 30,000 feet; you've got to play small ball," said Chuck Todd, NBC's Chief White House correspondent and political director.

The administration seemed to get it about two weeks in. The president changed his tone, and started to focus on moderates he could win over. He is bringing the message directly to the American people with town halls in Indiana on Monday and Florida today, and a prime-time press conference Monday night.

Video: Senators: Stimulus plan will create jobs But early on, the adminstration lost control of the message and never got out front, selling — and branding — the stimulus. Western Democrat Jon Tester's shop, for example, refers to the stimulus as the "jobs bill." That type of branding was not done by Obama.

Instead, Republicans were allowed to hold up the most outrageous examples of waste they could find in the House Democratic-written bill (mostly by Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey). And they made a concerted effort — via e-mail and otherwise — to make the process easy for cable producers to book their surrogates. It got their armed-with-talking-points promoters on TV more often.

Democratic strategists privately complained that they weren't even given any talking points until later in the process, when the Obama team realized the GOP was hunkered down and waging a campaign.

"In his bipartisan outreach, [Obama] failed to define and defend the major thrust of the House bill, allowing it to be inaccurately portrayed by Republicans and the media (including CNN and MSNBC) as filled with worthless pork," Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, wrote in an e-mail.

Use the bully pulpit
One way Obama could have prevented Republicans from defining the stimulus using small, seemingly outrageous items, would have been to use the bully pulpit earlier.

"I think in this case," Ornstein said, "you may want to use both press conferences and prime-time speeches a little bit more. You don't want to overuse, but early last week, a prime-time speech," could have been very helpful. He added, "If you go on TV and frame what you're doing, it makes it hard to pluck out specific items. You can't avoid that entirely when you have an $800-, $900-billion bill, but if you explain those individual attacks," Ornstein said it can be easier.

Speeches were a key weapon for Obama, the candidate. They should be an important part of the arsenal for Obama, the president.

Want the ball
On page 2 of former Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell's book "Obama: From Promise to Power," Mendell recalls asking Obama backstage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention if he was nervous before giving the most important speech of his life.

"Obama," Mendell wrote, "his gaze fixed directly ahead, never broke his stride. 'I'm LeBron, baby,'" Obama said.

Well, LeBron James, the professional basketball phenom Obama was comparing himself to, wants the ball in his hands. Obama would do well to remember that.

"[T]he House-passed package suggested an effort exclusively of, by, and for Democrats, and it played to some of the worst stereotypes of the Democratic Party and of politics as usual on Capitol Hill," wrote Charlie Cook in his latest National Journal column. "It implied that Obama had become a captive of, rather than the victor over, old-style politics. If Obama plays his own game, he can win. He certainly did in 2008. But if he plays someone else's, he loses."

It led to Democrats losing control of the message before one was even formed.

Reality check
Are Republicans really your friends? While Obama's efforts at bipartisanship were laudable and a public relations success, the last two weeks show it isn't going to be easy for this president to get Republicans to actually help with his agenda. He's going to have to rely on Democrats.

In trying "to change the tone of the back and forth," Ornstein said, "he's doing a great job of that."

But getting votes and building a consensus, "that's going to be a little trickier," he added. "There's no doubt that you can't go in there and negotiate with 30 to 40 moderates [in the House] — they don't exist."

Mann said this doesn't mean Obama was naïve, however, in trying to court Republicans.

Video: Schumer urges patience "[H]e did think he could get perhaps a dozen or so in the House and three or four in the Senate," he said. "And on the merits, he should have."

But, he added, it does show, "Huge ideological differences remain between the parties, and the president will have to rely mainly on Democrats in Congress to advance his agenda."

That doesn't mean that the president should ram through legislation either or that his outreach to Republicans was for naught. Look at the outreach as a down payment for later legislation — like, for example, how to spend the remaining $350 billion of the TARP money.

"If you say to the minority, 'Screw you; we don't need you … that might work early on when you're at high point," Ornstein said, but it won't work "...at other times, when you need something from the other side," he added.

Above all, Ornstein said, "A big part of it is not to lose your cool when the other side gives you the middle finger."

Domenico Montanaro covers politics for NBC News.

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