Two months into his presidency, it is far too soon to make any judgments about Barack Obama’s prospects. All we really know is that he has assembled the rudiments of an administration and launched a batch of ambitious but unproven initiatives.
But it is not too soon to say that the Obama honeymoon period is over. His critics in Washington and around the world have found their voices, and they are subjecting his administration to the kind of skeptical questioning that is normal for chief executives once they settle into their jobs.
Obama still enjoys broad public support, but it is stronger for him personally than for his policies. Some of those policies are bafflingly complex, and all of them are untested.
Among those who follow government closely, there has been an unmistakable change in tone in the last few weeks. These are not little Limbaughs hoping that Obama fails. They are politicians and journalists measuring him with the same skeptical eye they apply to everyone else.
I think the shift began when Obama moved beyond the stimulus bill to his speech to the joint session of Congress and his budget message. For the first time, the full extent of his ambitions for 2009 became clear – not just stopping and reversing the steep slide in the economy but launching highly controversial efforts in health care, energy and education.
Each of those issues has a history in Washington – a history marked by congressional gridlock and legislative frustration. The Obama administration is obviously aware of that history and is trying to avoid the mistakes of its predecessors.
Where Bill and Hillary Clinton formulated a highly detailed health reform plan in secret and presented it to Congress as a fait accompli, Obama held a televised, all-hands town hall at the White House to kick around ideas on health care and told Congress: Work on it for a while and let me know what you come up with.
That buys him some time, which is useful since two of his key health aides, Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy-Ann DeParle, aren’t even in their jobs yet. But expecting Congress to come up on its own with a plan for restructuring one-sixth of the national economy is expecting the impossible.
There is no single center of health policy in Congress. Two separate committees in the Senate and two in the House share overlapping jurisdictions, and their chairmen (and subcommittee chairmen) all have their own ideas about how to proceed.
One of them, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, suggested that he is thinking of financing expanded health insurance coverage by taxing policies now provided by employers – an idea Obama denounced when John McCain endorsed it during the campaign.
That is just a hint of the troubles to come as many congressional cooks vie to season Obama’s health care stew.
Similar challenges await on education and energy. Congress has taken note of the way Obama backed down from his anti-earmark stance, a clear signal that he is leery of any showdown with the lawmakers. Despite his popularity, Obama is not an intimidating figure and so he can expect to be tested time and again.
Meantime, on the main challenge – fixing the economy – the criticism has begun to infect the mainstream media, as well as the conservative wing. I was struck last week to read heartfelt pleas to Obama from David Ignatius of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times to get his priorities straight and concentrate on the crucial task of rescuing banking, credit, housing and jobs.
These are people who deeply admire and respect Obama and wish him nothing but success. But, like some thoughtful congressional Democrats with whom I have spoken, they worry that he has bitten off more than he can chew.
Criticism of this kind is not an augury of failure. But it does signal that the honeymoon is over.