President Obama got what he wanted: victory in the battle over his economic stimulus package. And while White House strategists admit that it will take many months before the $787 billion percolates across the country, they argue that the measure will help everyday people in the short term. That means adding money to individuals' paychecks, extending unemployment benefits, and allowing many laid-off workers to keep their health insurance. Beyond that, the overall effect of the plan remains uncertain.
But it's clear that Obama already has shaken up the status quo in Washington. The stimulus bill's passage "demonstrates that the president can fulfill his commitment to get things done," says White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Even though his bill got no Republican votes in the House and only three in the Senate, Obama still prevailed. "A win is a win," exults a senior White House adviser. Obama and his team have shown that they know how to kick-start the legislative apparatus—no small achievement after so many years of stalemate on many key issues. White House officials point out that the GOP assault on the plan has done nothing to depress Obama's popularity. His job-approval rating exceeds 60 percent. And the latest Gallup Poll finds that 59 percent of Americans support the stimulus legislation, up from 52 percent in January.
Richard Wirthlin, the legendary Republican pollster who advised Ronald Reagan, used to say that a new president needs, above all, to be a winner. That remains true today because winning demoralizes adversaries, encourages supporters to stay loyal, and breeds public trust that the president can move the system. In Obama's case, he has been helped by the way congressional Republicans have behaved. They run the risk of coming across like obstructionists or stubborn retrogrades, according to pollsters of both parties, and their image as a party has sunk to dangerous levels. Individual GOP legislators may remain popular in their conservative districts, but when their leaders appear on TV with a negative message day after day, it reinforces the image of the GOP as the curmudgeon's party, clinging to the partisan status quo.
As Congress considers Obama's next round of issues, including healthcare and climate change, the question is whether the GOP, in playing to its base, is following a losing strategy. "It's a threshold question: Do they want to participate?" asks a senior administration official. If they don't, Obama aides say he will move ahead without them.
The plight of the GOP was illustrated on NBC's Saturday Night Live, which both reflects and shapes public impressions of political figures. On February 14, a skit made savage fun of the House GOP leaders. It depicted them as eager to thwart the new president but frustrated by his success. In the end, the skit had them deciding that their best course is to attack President Obama's young daughters. It wasn't fair—satire rarely is. But it showed the depth of the GOP's image problems.
As for Obama, he continues to defy political gravity, which often pulls a new president down after a few weeks. Instead, he is trusted by Democrats and independents as a decent man trying to do the right thing—and leading a party of action. What the Republicans apparently don't fully appreciate is that, despite the uncertainties and the risks, Americans want their government to at least try something big to fix the economy and for their leaders to show they care.
Obama's problems with personnel appointments, such as the withdrawal of Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire as the nominee for commerce secretary, haven't dented the president's approval ratings. The talk shows on cable television and many pundits have given vast amounts of attention to the new president's shaky appointments process. But outside Washington, few Americans seem interested. Everyday people are far more worried about losing their jobs, their homes, and their retirement savings.
The president's advisers say the stimulus victory will give his entire agenda a lift, and they plan to capitalize on it. They believe he can at least provide a "down payment" on his other campaign promises, such as relieving the crisis in home foreclosures, moving toward energy independence, and overhauling healthcare.