A leap in the dark

While watching Barack Obama deliver his audaciously ambitious speech on the economy yesterday, I was reminded of the scene in The Dark Knight when Batman decides to catapult himself from one skyscraper to another, high off the ground in a pitch-black sky, guided by the fluttering wings of his batsuit.

Thanks to movie magic, Batman naturally landed without a scratch. In all likelihood, Obama won’t be that lucky. Washington isn’t Hollywood; the political denizens of the capital tend to act out their own scripts. There is no “director’s cut” in Washington. Yet here is Obama – and you’ve got to give him credit for cajones – declaring in a speech that not only should Congress enact the most far-reaching economic recovery plan in American history, in accordance with the priorities that he has outlined, but that it should swiftly enact the plan without the partisan sniping and horse-trading that is the traditional life’s blood of Capitol Hill politics.

In other words, the president-elect wants to reverse the economic crisis and erase what he calls “the worn-out dogmas…the old ideological battles” – all in one fell swoop. Whew. This is I gotta see.

This is truly a leap into the dark, as evidenced by the speech:  “For if we hope to end this crisis, we must end the culture of anything goes that helped create it – and this change must begin in Washington. It is time to trade old habits for a new spirit of responsibility. It is time to finally change the ways of Washington…The true test of the policies we pursue won’t be whether they’re Democratic or Republican ideas, but whether they create jobs, grow our economy…For every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs…"

He continues: "That’s why I’m asking Congress to work with me and my team day and night, on weekends if necessary…That’s why I’m calling on all Americans – Democrats and Republicans – to put good ideas ahead of the old ideological battles, a sense of common purpose above the same narrow partisanship; and insist that the first question each of us asks isn’t ‘What’s good for me?’ but ‘What’s good for the country my children will inherit?’”

Did you catch that? Obama is asking Congress to work weekends. That alone would truly change the culture of Washington.

Most striking were the speech passages where he sought to woo both liberals and conservatives. He tacked left, and probably unnerved the right, when he defended the massive federal spending (currently, around $500 billion) in his recovery plan: “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy…” (So much for Bill Clinton’s decade-old declaration that “the era of big government is over.”)

Conversely, he also tacked right, and probably discomfited the left, when he reiterated his proposal to cut taxes on a massive scale (by roughly $300 billion), in order “to get people spending again.” His package would include big tax breaks for businesses, thereby presumably reassuring congressional Republicans that he’s not an old-school programmatic liberal. (Indeed, he insisted in his speech that “our goal is not to create a slew of new government programs.”)

And he probably unnerved everyone on the Hill when he demanded “an economic recovery plan that is free of earmarks and pet projects. I understand that every member of Congress has ideas on how to spend money. Many of these projects are worthy, and benefit local communities. But this emergency legislation must not be the vehicle for those aspirations. This must be a time when leaders of both parties put the urgent needs if our nation above our narrow interests.”

Here’s my translation of that particular speech passage: “Back off, hacks. I know your first instinct is to festoon this bill with goodies for the folks back home. I know you want to bring home the bacon and grease your re-election bids, but, please, give it a rest this time, OK?”

We’ll see how that one goes. It’s tough to re-train political animals. Certain behavior is ingrained in their nature. Personally, I’d love to teach my dog not to bark when the doorbell rings. Not gonna happen.

Nor does it appear, at this point anyway, that the lawmakers are willing to set aside their ideological predilictions. (Perhaps for good reason; the big problem at the moment is that nobody has a monopoly on what recovery mix would actually work.) Liberals on the Hill are insisting that Obama’s package is too timid, that it doesn’t go far enough on the spending side; as Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa complained yesterday, the Obama plan has too much of the old Republican “trickle down” philosophy). Meanwhile, conservative Democrats and the Republicans are worried that Obama’s spending package is too fiscally risky, that it will spread too much red ink on the books. (House Republican leader John Boehner asked yesterday, “how much debt are we going to pile on future generations?” – which is quite humorous, considering how the GOP majority, in cahoots with George W. Bush, piled on the debt in the old days.)

Obama, at least for now, does have one significant advantage: He is broadly popular, whereas Congress is not. He’s sitting at 63 percent in a new national poll (with only 18 percent of Americans viewing him negatively).  Congressional Democrats are perceived favorably by 41 percent. Congressional Republicans, by 24 percent. And Obama’s recovery plan gets a thumbs-up from 79 percent. He’ll have a honeymoon, and he has the biggest megaphone, one that he uses well. The message, it would appear, is that Congress would be foolish to grind up his plan in the usual sausage-making fashion.

All this, and he hasn’t even taken the oath of office yet. Only then, when the hard work truly commences, will we get the first real indications of whether he can leap between buildings – or whether, in the more traditional manner, he is a president governed by gravity.