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Obama may learn from slips on stimulus

On his first big test, Barack Obama made some rookie mistakes and strategic missteps. But he still appears headed for a win on the centerpiece of his agenda, a huge economic recovery program.
President Barack Obama boards Marine One Saturday on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.Lawrence Jackson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On his first big test, Barack Obama made some rookie mistakes and strategic missteps. But he still appears headed for a win on the centerpiece of his agenda, a huge economic recovery program, with the fresh striking of a bipartisan deal in the Senate.

Legislative leaders, including some fellow Democrats who support him, chalked up his problems to inexperience and some initial miscalculations over the lack of GOP support, and they suggest he'll learn from the rocky start.

Americans have learned, too, a little about how their new president works.

He's swung from being conciliatory to badgering Congress to act, from courting the opposition to taking partisan swipes. He's had to fight to keep from losing control of the message. And all this is playing out against a background of Cabinet problems, economic distress and global distractions.

Could have made it easier
Some veteran Democrats say Obama could have made it easier for himself.

"I think it is important that he reached out. But lesson learned: It would have been better for him to send up his idea of a bill," instead of having House Democratic leaders initiate the process, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Leaders of both parties agree the nation's slumping economy requires strong stimulus, an argument reinforced by a government report showing soaring new job losses. Obama will likely get most of what he wants. On the job under three weeks, he still has a large reservoir of good will on Capitol Hill.

But things haven't gone quite the way the new Obama team expected. It's been a rough two weeks of on-the-job training on the legislative process from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for the former one-term Illinois senator.

"You know, it's referred to as sausage-making and probably for good reason," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Still, Obama aides claimed they were satisfied with the results, given the enormity of the challenge. "In a matter of weeks, we moved through both houses of Congress a very complex piece of legislation," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said Saturday in an interview. "I don't know if there is a parallel in history."

Didn't win any GOP House votes
While Obama reached out energetically to members of both parties, he didn't win a single Republican vote in the House. In the Senate, Democrats late Friday reached a deal with a small band of GOP moderates that set the stage for expected approval within the next few days.

The recovery package was put together by congressional Democrats in partnership with Obama, a process begun during Obama's transition. The administration decided against starting off the process by submitting its own detailed legislative package.

Even though Obama and top aides stayed close to the process, the result was an $819 billion package packed with spending projects, some of which struck even some fiscally conservative Democrats as not particularly stimulative. In the Senate, an even larger package was considered, although the deal struck Friday night pared it back some.

The size and composition of the plan gave Republicans an opening to assert that Obama had given too much leeway to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Banking Committee Chairman Barney Frank. And they also could argue that, while Obama had offered to consider GOP suggestions for the package, none wound up in the legislation.

In not sending his own legislation to Congress, Obama did the exact opposite of what President Bill Clinton did in 1993 when he tried to get Congress to swallow whole a detailed health care overhaul plan put together by a task force headed by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. That take-it-or-leave it approach alienated Congress.

Ceding the debate to Capitol Hill
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who has actively championed the stimulus bill, said Obama stumbled at first by ceding the debate to Capitol Hill and not stepping out more forcefully to explain the bill to the public.

"A small percentage of this bill, the unnecessary spending, allowed Republicans — who have played politics on this from the beginning — to discredit it so public opinion is against it," Rendell, the chairman of the National Governors Association, said in an interview Friday. "We need a massive stimulus bill with spending. Every economist says that. And yet the American people are against it now because we let the Republicans spin."

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said Republican critics were able to define the legislation as a bloated spending measure being rushed through Congress. "We can't just sit back and let them define us," he said. He said he was pleased that Obama had shifted gears and was "going on the offensive."

After his original outreach to Republicans, Obama late last week changed his tone and derided Republican ideas for putting more tax cuts in the stimulus package. Such ideas "have been tested and they have failed," he said in a speech at the Energy Department. Later, he told a gathering of congressional Democrats in Williamsburg, Va., that "the scale and scope of this plan is right."

First prime-time news conference
He'll continue trying to regain momentum on economic policy. He plans his first prime-time news conference on Monday after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner outlines details for a new financial-sector rescue plan. Then he'll participate in town hall-style meetings in towns suffering particularly hard times — Elkhart, Ind., on Monday and Fort Myers, Fla., on Tuesday.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Obama's courtship of Republicans only to be rebuffed by them should serve as "an early lesson for President Obama and his team."

But James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said Obama set a particularly high bar for himself by "promising to change the way Washington works."

"He promised to make it a less partisan, post-partisan place. And so he has to do this. The question is whether he can hit the sweet spot on the stimulus package with enough tax breaks and enough non-controversial spending to get the votes. I think he can," Thurber said.

Democrats praise Obama's close work with them on the stimulus legislation.

"I don't think there's any doubt that the president has been active ... he's been making phone calls, visiting members in the Senate and the House personally," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. But Becerra said the jury's still out on the effectiveness of his approach because the bill still isn't done. Once the measure passes the Senate, differences with the House-passed bill will have to be reconciled.

"It's a work in progress," said Becerra. "It's still cooking."

Associated Press reporters Jennifer Loven, Liz Sidoti and Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.