Nobody Knows the Trouble He'll See
A few clouds on Obama's horizon.
Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By FRED BARNES
Except for the distraction (or worse) caused by the Blagojevich scandal, President-elect Barack Obama has had a wonderful transition. His cabinet picks have been widely praised. His press conferences have been short, orderly, and mostly sweet. And the excitement over his inauguration as America's 44th president has been growing palpably. But there is trouble ahead.
Some of the trouble is self-inflicted, the product of an unrealistic campaign promise or Obama's unique idea for the architecture of his administration. Part comes from the political situation he's stepping into. And part is the result of Obama's political roots. The trouble begins the day he steps into the Oval Office.
Let's start with the foolish campaign boast. Obama said his transition and his presidency would be "transparent." Before and during the Democratic primaries, the phrase he used was "open and transparent." His campaign website said the Obama presidency would create "a new level of transparency."
Obama should have known better. Transparency or anything close to it in the White House won't happen. It's a standard that no president has ever met or tried to. That's because transparency is neither possible nor desirable. Deliberations and decision-making require privacy, even stonewalling at times. But that's not the problem. The press is. Reporters are bound to remind Obama of his promise, as one did last week. "You ran on a platform of transparency," the reporter said. "How difficult is all this having to wait to release your inquiry [on staff contacts with Blagojevich] when the American people expect transparency?" This was the respectful version of the questions about transparency that Obama will get as president.
The media are likely to be relentless on this point. Highlighting a president's failure to live up to a promise is a hardy perennial of Washington journalism. But reporters also have a vested interest in Obama's transparency promise. A White House with little or nothing hidden is every reporter's dream. So the media won't let this promise fade. Obama's boast will come back to haunt him.
This is also true of his insistence on putting a team of "czars" in the White House, people who deal with the same issues as cabinet members. Obama has named an energy secretary and an Environmental Protection Agency chief, along with a czar on his presidential staff to deal with energy and environmental issues. He'll have a housing secretary and an urban affairs czar at the White House.
The problem here is obvious. Secretaries and czars will fight for the president's attention. When they disagree, the czars will have the advantage of working nearer to the president. Cabinet members will fume. There are already two czar-like advisers at the White House: the national security adviser and the national economic adviser. In past presidencies, their influence grew at the expense of the secretaries of state, defense, and treasury. Conflict ensued. More czars mean more conflict, plus story after story in the press about infighting.
As president, Obama will step into an ideal political situation, at least on the surface. He'll be dealing with a Congress with solid Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. What more could a Democratic president ask for? What's the problem?
Obama and Democrats agree on the big issues, but on power-sharing, process, and priorities they part ways. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has declared that once Joe Biden becomes vice president, he won't be invited to the weekly meetings of the Democratic caucus. This had to be a bitter pill for Biden. He was a senator himself for 36 years and, as veep, actually has a constitutional role in the Senate. But, as a White House man, the senators don't want him butting in. They prefer to decide things on their own.
If Reid's message wasn't clear to the Obama team, House speaker Nancy Pelosi removed any doubt. She told Rahm Emanuel, her former House colleague and now Obama's choice to be White House chief of staff, to stay out of internal House Democratic matters. According to John Bresnahan of Politico, she was clear about what she expects from Obama and his aides, a wish list including "no surprises, and no backdoor efforts to go around her and other Democratic leaders by cutting deals with moderate New Democrats or conservative Blue Dogs."
The subtext is that Reid and Pelosi fear Obama may be more willing to compromise on liberal issues than they are. And they don't want a repeat of President Clinton's so-called "triangulation" with Republicans, despite Obama's promise to pursue bipartisanship. Bottom line: The relationship between Obama and congressional Democrats will be tense. It is already.
There's another aspect of that relationship that's potentially troublesome. More than Obama, congressional Democrats are sensitive to the wants of liberal special interest groups. They're impatient to pass the entire liberal agenda, sooner rather than later. They're eager to fill the $850 billion economic "stimulus" package that Obama is expected to sign soon after being inaugurated with goodies for these groups, notably organized labor and environmentalists.
The problem is Obama didn't run on the liberal agenda and the public didn't vote for it. Imposing that agenda on the country, as Reid and Pelosi would like to do, tax increases and all, might backfire politically. But the combined force of congressional Democrats and liberal special interests could be too great for Obama to resist.
And then there's Chicago, Obama's adopted hometown. He rose through the Democratic machine in Chicago without being tainted by it. But the Blagojevich scandal and the fraud conviction of Democratic fundraiser and developer Tony Rezko suggest we haven't heard the final word on Obama and Chicago. Could his ties to the Chicago machine come back to haunt Obama? If they do, that will be the biggest trouble of all.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.