Obama Gets Ready for His Washington Closeup

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President-elect Barack Obama walks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after a meeting on Capitol Hill on Jan. 5

For giddy Democrats and wary Republicans alike, the waiting is over: Barack Obama has officially arrived, shutting down streets in the nation's capital and sending the news media into a tizzy. Over the next couple of weeks, as the postelection honeymoon builds to its inaugural apex, the gossip rags and the news pages can all report the same story. Entertainment Tonight and PBS's NewsHour will be able to compete for scoops. Obama flew in Sunday afternoon from Chicago on a jumbo jet from the Air Force's presidential fleet. (He was choked up leaving his old house!) He moved into a hotel with his family. (The Hay-Adams, where Mark Twain drank!) His daughters were shuttled off to a new school. (Tuition is almost $30,000 a year — but the hot lunches are free!)

The President-elect has always understood how to maximize photo ops for political ends, and his first day in Washington was no exception. Obama's task was to look like a man in charge, reaching out to Republican and Democratic members of Congress, followed by photo ops and statements that could be read as closely as the oracles. Would the Republican House minority leader, John Boehner, thank Obama for making a courtesy call or praise their "productive discussions"? Would Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell demand for Republicans a bigger seat at the legislative drafting table or simply welcome the new President? (See pictures of Barack Obama when he was in college.)

Obama knows that just beyond the flashbulbs, a darkening storm hangs over the nation. The national and global economies continue to deteriorate at a terrifying pace. The ISM Manufacturing Index, a key measurement of domestic production, hit a 28-year low in December. Payrolls fell an additional half million last month, leading economists to predict that the total job losses in 2008 were greater than at any point since the immediate aftermath of World War II. The housing-price free fall has yet to show any clear sign of stabilization.

And so, after a morning powwow with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — she called meeting the President-elect in her office a "great honor and personal privilege" — Obama hit his day's talking points. "The reason we are here today is that the people's business can't wait," he said. "We have an extraordinary economic challenge ahead of us."

The immediate medicine for this ailment is widely agreed upon within Democratic, and many Republican, circles: a large stimulus package, perhaps as big as $750 billion or even $1 trillion over two years. The number is large by design. To have an effect on the economy, it has to be big, say economists. (The entire Vietnam War cost about $700 billion, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since Sept. 11, 2001, have already cost more than $860 billion, according to congressional bean counters.)

But that's big enough to cause political peril; no one knows for sure if the stimulus package can be passed in the size or with the speed that economists say the nation needs. Democrats say they want the stimulus to be bipartisan, in part to grant political cover if the bill fails to jump-start the economy. In the House, this is largely an optional position, but in the Senate, where Democrats do not hold a filibuster-proof majority, bipartisanship is required.

The complexity of this task is magnified by the nature of the spending. Obama officials have suggested that as much as 40% of the stimulus spending will come in the form of tax cuts — the preference of Republicans — including rebates for individuals and business investment. That disclosure has already sparked grumbling among more liberal Democratic activists. Some parts of the stimulus package, like a possible extension of unemployment benefits, will prove to be politically popular. But a large chunk of the spending will come in the form of federally funded infrastructure investment, the sort of spending that is typically doled out by powerful lawmakers, often to their home districts, in exchange for political favors — what most of America calls political pork.

Anticipating this problem, Vice President–elect Joe Biden announced last month that he will avoid the worst abuses of the political earmarking system. "Every dollar will be closely watched to make sure it's being used in an effective manner," Biden said. "I know it's the Christmas season, but President-elect Obama and I are absolutely, absolutely determined that this economic-recovery package will not become a Christmas tree."

Executive determination, however, is certain to be little match for legislative power. For one thing, the U.S. government lacks any clear bureaucratic process for deciding quickly which projects to fund and which to avoid outside of the political arena. For another, the new President's only route to the U.S. Treasury must pass through the halls of the same appropriators in Congress — both Republican and Democrat — who have overseen the terrific expansion of often wasteful federal spending over the past decade. Whether or not they call it a Christmas tree, in other words, a Christmas tree it will surely be.

With this expectation, Republicans are positioning themselves to be remade as the party of good government. Boehner announced last week that Republicans want the bill to be fully debated, pork-free and presented transparently to the American people. "The text of the measure should be made available online for the American people to review for at least one week," Boehner announced. On Sunday, House majority leader Steny Hoyer seemed to agree, calling Boehner's criteria "good" and adding, "We hope to meet those." McConnell, Boehner's colleague, even suggested over the weekend that some of the money should be given to states as loans rather than as outright grants.

In this way, the ground has been laid for the great stimulus fight of 2009. A spending bill of enormous size must be passed with the cooperation of political enemies in a compressed timetable. It is a challenge that will soon dwarf the abilities of Obama to shine in front of cameras on Capitol Hill. On Monday he got to do a victory lap. By the end of the day, the real work will begin.

See pictures of Barack Obama on Flickr.

Read "Travel: An Inauguration Day How-To."