There is something refreshing about Barack Obama's candor. First, because one did not hear it from his two immediate predecessors; and, second, because they give some insight into how the man might play the very difficult hand he has been dealt.
When Tom Daschle, Obama's choice for Secretary of Health, was forced to resign because he had neglected to pay his taxes -- and the various perks he had received since leaving public office became public knowledge -- Obama used the vernacular to admit his mistake. "I screwed up," he said. And last week, while generating support for his economic stimulus plan -- in the face of an almost solid wall of Republican opposition -- he told an audience in Fort Myers, Florida that, if he couldn't fix the economy, "you'll have a new president."
Some have taken that candor to be weakness. In fact, the chattering classes have already started to write his political obituary. As Frank Rich pointed out on Sunday, Newsweek declared in the first week of February that Obama "had all but lost control of the agenda in Washington"; and Politico claimed that he was "losing the stimulus message war." However, as Rich also pointed out, the pundits wrote the same kind of things when he was vying with Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination; and they predicted that John McCain -- the bus driver on the "Straight Talk Express" -- would run him over.
For while Obama has made mistakes, he is a quick study -- and he is not hide bound by ideology. In fact, he sounds a lot like Franklin Roosevelt. "We will do what works," he has said. That "will require re-evaluation" and "if that doesn't work, we'll try something else." You can bet that Obama has learned something from the Republican threat to filibuster his stimulus package and Senator Gregg's decision to walk away from his nomination for Secretary of Commerce.
At the end of the week the president had his stimulus package. As Paul Krugman points out in today's New York Times, that package, while absolutely necessary, may not be enough; and his bank rescue package leaves out a lot of details. But Obama does not suffer from the self delusion that most Americans have been living with for a long time. "The bottom line," writes Krugman, is that, according to the Survey of Consumer Finances, "there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower that it was in 2001."
The problem is that "until very recently Americans believed they were getting richer, because they received statements saying that their houses and stock portfolios were appreciating in value faster than their debts were increasing." The whole economy was built on the Bernie Madoff model. It was a Ponzi scheme.
Obama -- perhaps because of who he is and where he has been -- is no fool. As he told a group of reporters aboard Air Force One, enroute to Chicago at the end of last week, "You know, I'm an eternal optimist. That doesn't mean I'm a sap." Those who confidently boast that they have cut the young, green politician down to size should engage in their own re-evaluation.