Warren Harding was obviously not one of our greatest presidents. But during his little more than two years in the White House, he did offer some shrewd insights into life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they're the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!"
After only a little more than two weeks in office, Barack Obama is learning Harding's lesson the hard way, and it's his Democratic pals who could do him in.
First, let's check in with Obama's opponents. So far, the big story of the first two weeks in the press has been how not a single Republican in the House voted for the president's huge stimulus package. Of course, the surprise would have been if any of them had. Bi-partisanship sounds great in theory, and Obama deserves credit for walking the extra mile across the aisle. But the truth is that there's little politically to be gained for the GOP to be out there supporting Obama on his first initiative. If it succeeds — even if they support it — he'll get the credit. If it doesn't, they don't want their fingerprints anywhere near it.
Besides, there's not a lot of harm the GOP can do to the new president at this stage. They're a distinct minority and still in stage one of their 12-step recovery program.
Obama's own Democrats, on the other hand, are another story. They have the votes on the Hill to do what they want. And what they've done so far is to put together a legislative package in the House that could end Obama's honeymoon overnight, if he signs anything resembling it.
The truth is that he's the one with the 60-plus-percent positive rating. The Democratic Congress is still somewhere in the vicinity of 20 percent. They should be trying to follow his lead, rather than the other way around.
Yet that's not the way it's working. Yes, spending bills come out of Congress, not the Oval Office. But Obama is letting his laudable interest in "let's get along" communal management get the better of him. Everyone knows it's time for real leadership to face a growing crisis. Instead, the Democratic House has taken advantage of the financial circumstances and the temporary "no limit to the deficit" situation to put forth a bill that may have some stimulus in it, but also has nothing concrete around which the nation can rally.
It is also a wonderful laundry list of practically every Democratic idea that couldn't be funded for the past two decades, whether it solves our economic problems or not. More money for the National Endowment for the Arts, more money for digital-TV conversion coupons, more money for the Smithsonian, and so on.
Sure, most are legitimate programs that deserve support. They just don't deserve it at this crucial moment, when the government's sole focus should be fighting the financial crisis and helping those really in need. According to at least one study, more than half the money appropriated won't even reach the street until at least 2011. Some stimulus.
The response has been predictable. A few short weeks ago, Obama's huge stimulus had support from established figures on the right, such as economist Marty Feldstein, and centrist establishment columnists such as David Brooks. Now, they're drifting away. Meanwhile, the Rasmussen Poll shows that public support for the package has begun to drop.
They know that this isn't "change we can believe in" at all.
It really isn't Obama's fault — yet. But now is the time for him to bury the talk about working together and get tough with his own party. Once this bill passes, the economic crisis will belong to him — not George W. Bush and the GOP. He needs a better bill, if only because if it remains structured like this, it will hardly provide the immediate jolt the economy needs.
The nation is watching. And so, too, is the world. If Obama can't stand up to his own party in Congress, a lot of people will begin to wonder if he can stand to up to anybody.
To read the Stark Ravings blog, go to thePhoenix.com/starkravings. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.