But the train goes off the rails.
Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
One of many highlights of the stimulus bill the Democrats just rammed through Congress is $8 billion for high-speed rail. What makes this appropriation special is that there was no money for high-speed rail in the original House legislation. The Senate bill had $2 billion. The legislation coming out of conference "compromised" on $8 billion.
How did this happen? Well, some of that $8 billion, as the Washington Post reported Friday, seems intended for "a controversial proposal for a magnetic-levitation rail line between Disneyland, in California, and Las Vegas, a project favored by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). The 311-mph train could make the trip from Sin City to Tomorrowland in less than two hours, according to backers." Reid of course played a major role in putting together the final bill.
That's the kind of policymaking the new Obama administration has embraced in its signature legislative proposal: a congressional process as unseemly as ever; an emergency bill that barely addresses the emergency; a "stimulus" bill short on stimulus (is that magnetic-levitation rail line "shovel-ready"?).
What accounts for this debacle? You could start with a lack of presidential leadership. Who would have thought the missing player in the first month of the administration would be Barack Obama? He let his signature economic legislation, the stimulus, be shaped by congressional Democrats. He let internal disputes over the difficult question of how to save the banking system result in a disastrous non-announcement of a non-plan by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner last week. Before that, he let Geithner become Treasury secretary after cheating on his income taxes, and waived his own ethics rules to appoint a lobbyist as deputy secretary of defense--undercutting his promises to clean up Washington. He allowed Rahm Emanuel to politicize the Census Bureau, losing as a result his commerce secretary-designee, Judd Gregg, an ornament of his professed hope for bipartisanship.
In foreign policy, Obama has exerted no more control. He allowed both Super-Special Pooh-bah Richard Holbrooke and National Security Adviser Jim Jones to give interviews to the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively, touting their own importance and presenting the president as a distant player in the formulation of foreign policy. Meanwhile, turf wars in the State Department and the National Security Council are even more bitterly fought than usual. The tale of Holbrooke shouting at Undersecretary of State Bill Burns that he'll keep Burns waiting as long as he wants, since he (allegedly) outranks Burns, makes the Rumsfeld-Powell drama look tame.
And where is Obama amid all this turmoil? Well, he's not amid it--and he's apparently not curbing or directing it. He seems to be magnetically levitating at least a few inches above the ground, doing campaign events in swing states and in his home state of Illinois, revving up the crowds to . . . do what? To encourage congressional Democrats to support their own package? He allowed the aforementioned Jim Jones--who has a lot on his plate--to spend many hours at an international gabfest in Munich at which Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and Holbrooke were already over-representing the United States. Reveling in the fond attentions of the Europeans and occasionally dozing off from jet lag, Jones allowed the delegation to send dangerously ambiguous signals about the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.
Politically, Republicans are relieved by Obama's weak start. A well-crafted stimulus could have split Hill Republicans. It could also have exposed intellectual disarray on the right over the financial crisis. But Obama allowed the GOP to dodge that bullet and begin the term with a reinvigorating series of intellectually successful assaults on the stimulus bill. A strong message on Afghanistan from the administration would have won the support of Republican hawks--and might have caused other Republicans foolishly to move in a semi-isolationist direction, provoking another internal GOP dispute. Withdrawing Geithner's nomination would have elevated the new president above the last eight years of Republican-dominated Washington business as usual.
So Republicans have some reason to cheer. But not much. The country needs a president capable of exercising leadership at home and abroad. Barack Obama has had a charmed career. He's been the magnetic-levitation train of recent American politics, skimming over the surface at great speed without having to slog through the mud that slows down and climb over the boulders that trip up normal politicians. But now he's president. The charm is wearing off. It's time for him to stoop to govern.