WASHINGTON--The irony of President Barack Obama's Blue Tuesday is that the wall-to-wall television interviews he granted were designed not to apologize for Tom Daschle's fall from grace but to fight back against the Republicans' success in tarnishing his stimulus package.
Obama's network appearances were planned as a response to a wholly unanticipated development: Republicans--short on new ideas, low on votes, and deeply unpopular in the polls--have been winning the media wars over the president's central initiative.
They have done so largely by focusing on minor bits of the stimulus that amount, as Obama said in at least two of his network interviews, to "less than 1 percent of the overall package." But Republicans have succeeded in defining the proposal by its least significant parts.
Daschle's withdrawal as the nominee for secretary of health and human services poses a long-term challenge to the administration's ambitious health care plans because he was so crucial to the White House's strategy. But the battering the stimulus has taken is an immediate problem.
Although Obama aides dismiss the media coverage as "cable chatter" important only inside the "Washington echo chamber," they acknowledge that Congress does its work inside that noisy hall and that the journalistic back-and-forth has tainted its key legislative objective. "We didn't give it as much air cover last week as we should," said one top adviser. "We lost a week."
This thinking was reflected during Obama's interviews, once he got through his apologies for having "screwed up" the Daschle matter.
Obama kept bringing the stimulus discussion back to the bill's purpose of restoring life to a cratered economy. He also highlighted the bill's substantive elements--in health care, education, energy and relief to fiscally ailing states--that have received scant attention in news accounts dominated by political questions about how much Obama should concede to the Republican minority.
For most of the debate, Obama has cast himself as a benevolent referee overseeing a sprawling and untidy legislative process to which he would eventually bring order. He urged Democrats to knock out small spending measures that had caused public relations problems while doing little to defend the overall package or to reply to its Republican critics.
In the meantime, those critics were relentless, often casting logic aside to reframe the debate from a practical concern over how to rescue the economy to an ideological dispute about government spending.
"This plan is a spending plan; it's not a stimulus plan," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., ignoring the truth that stimulus plans--including Republican proposals to put more money into resolving the housing crisis--by definition include significant new spending.
And Republicans who in one breath say they want more tax cuts declare in the next that they are against the tax cuts Obama has actually proposed.
Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said of Obama's $500 refundable tax credit: "Calling a rebate to people who don't pay income taxes a tax cut doesn't make it a tax cut." Presumably Kyl doesn't consider the payroll taxes (or, for that matter, sales taxes) paid disproportionately by low- and middle-income Americans as taxes.
But such volleys have gone largely unreturned, and the biggest danger for Obama will come if Republican attacks erode support for the stimulus among Democrats. That's why the president will be spending more time with congressional Democrats in the coming days. The administration's visionary emphasis on winning expansive Republican support has been replaced by a down-to-earth struggle to get a bill through the Senate.
Its hopes rest in part on a different form of bipartisanship. If Washington Republicans have decided to build a wall of opposition to the stimulus, Republican governors and mayors are eager for the money Obama wants to give them.
Thus will Obama and his allies be touting strong support for the stimulus from the Republican governors of California, Connecticut, Florida and Vermont. Mayors will be called upon to move House Republicans still open to persuasion.
In just two weeks, Obama and his advisers have been forced to learn basic lessons on the run. The elation of Inauguration Day has given way to a classic form of partisan hardball. The media cannot be counted on to be either liberal or permanently enchanted with any politician. Arguments left unanswered can take hold, whether they make sense or not. And one more lesson: No occupant of the White House has ever been able to walk on water.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.