Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Village Dance

Mark Halperin is out with his evaluation of President Obama’s first year in office. He ticks off the five things the president did better “than you realize” and the five things he is “doing worse than you think.” The biggest sins he’s committed so far as Mr. Halperin is concerned is that the administration is not sucking up to “official Washington.”

In 2008 the country clearly craved new leadership that would sweep into the capital and change the ways of Washington. But politically and personally, the First Couple and their top aides have shown no hankering for the Establishment seal of approval, nor have they accepted the glut of invitations to embassy parties and other tribal rituals of the political class. In the sphere of Washington glitter, the Clintons were clumsy and the Bush team indifferent, but the Obama Administration has turned a cold shoulder, disappointing Beltway salons and newsrooms whose denizens hoped the über-cool newbies would play.

I know it really rankles the Villagers (as the punditocracy and climbers in D.C. have come to be known) that President Obama and the First Lady have not been to all the cocktail parties and fawned over the people who think they are the true power-brokers, but hey, you know, maybe it’s because he’s got a lot of work to do. Besides, if he did go to these parties, wouldn’t the Republicans jump all over him for doing nothing but schmoozing? (And there’s the chance that some boozed-up D.C. retainer would see the president, hand him his car keys, and tell him to be careful parking the Bimmer.)

That leads to another one of Mr. Halperin’s criticisms: “Changing the Tone in Washington.”

This is the most unmet of Obama’s campaign promises and the most potentially damaging for his ability to succeed going forward. Once the new President cast his lot with his party in passing an economic-stimulus measure rather than seeking bipartisan agreement, rival Republicans started digging in. The White House’s original plan was to leverage Obama’s popularity and the agenda-setting power of the majority to force centrist Republicans to break ranks and cast cross-aisle votes on key measures — but the Administration underestimated the weakness of the opposition, which paradoxically strengthened the hand of the conservative activist grass roots, making compromise by GOP officials with the Democrats seem politically untenable. Obama’s aides continue to blame the Republicans for refusing to play ball, but the buck stops with the President, whose paths to success on issues such as climate control, jobs and education are all narrower because of a partisan bitterness that rivals that of the Clinton and Bush eras.

Oh, yes, it’s all the president’s fault that the Republicans went completely bull-goose looney on him. If the president can be faulted for anything on this, it’s that he and his administration haven’t done enough to make the GOP and the tea-baggers look as ridiculously stupid — not to mention as dangerous — as they really are.

All of Mr. Halperin’s criticisms of the president are about style, not substance; not fitting in with the Kool Kidz, and not turning the venom-spewing vitriol that he gets by the bucket-load into a political advantage. If those are the biggest mistakes the president has made in his first year, then I’m not sure those are necessarily bad things. Yes, some accommodation with the niceties of the Village might make for smoother sailing, but it’s ironic that many candidates get a lot of mileage out of promising to “shake things up in Washington,” only to find out that when they get there, that’s the one thing they’re not supposed to do: shake things up by not playing along.