Barack Obama is beginning to sound just a wee bit frantic for a man who has been president of the United States for a little more than a fortnight. A month from now, who knows? He got his stimulus package through the Senate, but it was a bitter partisan victory. But for two women and Arlen Specter, the always reliable Democratic allies in a partisan showdown, he got no help from the Republicans.
His performance at his first press conference earlier this week in Indiana was remarkable for pitch and tone. This was no longer the man who told us through the summer and fall that proper manners and good faith would be enough to dissolve partisanship in Washington, that the grinding wheels of government would roll happily ever after with never a howl of pain or the squeak of triumphalism.
His kind words for Republicans have become the scolding of an affronted president, the offered hand a partisan fist. He had put Republicans in his Cabinet, had gone up to Capitol Hill to visit Republicans in their lair, even invited some of them to the White House, and they responded with “the usual political games.”
”I suppose what I could have done was to start out with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some and then let them take credit for all of them.” He summoned scorn and poured it on — “When I hear from folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt, then I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history,” he said. “I inherited the deficit that we have right now, and the economic crisis that we have right now.”
The new president is learning that it takes more “charm” to pacify Washington than any one man has - even the man some call “the Dali Bama.” He sounds incredulous that some of the Republicans are playing politics, forgetting that politics is what congressmen play, that it's the media's job to egg them on. He might as well rebuke linebackers for making quarterbacks miserable.
Most ominous of all, from the president's point of view, certain correspondents and pundits have noticed, many for the first time, that the president is mortal. Cracks are showing in the media bubble that protected him for so long. Fox News' Major Garrett quoted Vice President Joe Biden's remarks suggesting that the stimulus might not work - “If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, if we stand up there and we really make the tough decisions, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong” - and asked what he thought about that. He aimed his exasperation at his veep.
”You know,” Obama said, “I don't remember exactly what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly.” There was a ripple of giggles and the president continued — “I think what Joe might have been suggesting, although I would not ascribe any numerical percentage to any of this, is that given the magnitude of the challenges that we have, any single thing that we do is going to be part of the solution, not all of the solution.” But that's not what the vice president said and the president, who knows and respects the meaning of words, knew it. As he stretched like a yogi to make his own interpretation of this verbal exercise he may have sought harmony, but the media chorus now waking up to the meaning of his mantras is less than serene.
He still has raw sex appeal going for him, but there's evidence that even the fantasies about him are beginning to provoke pangs of guilt. Judith Warner, a columnist for the New York Times, tells of dreaming about Mr. Obama: “He was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs, and then he was being yelled at by my husband, Max, for smoking in the house. It was not clear whether Max was feeling protective of the president's health or jealous because of the cigaret.”
This is more than we need to know about Ms. Warner's intimate grooming, or her fantasies, but she demonstrates how consumed the media chorus has been with their object all sublime. Ms. Warner herself seems to see what's coming. “If I were Obama (or Michelle, for that matter),” she writes, “I'd be a little scared. After all, when people are wearing their egos on their sleeves it's so easy to bruise their feelings. What will happen when fantasy turns to contempt?” What, indeed. That's when Barack Obama, apostle of good will and erstwhile foe of partisanship, will understand why he'll never achieve nirvana in Washington.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.