In the Arena


  • Share
  • Read Later


The President’s press conference happened in the middle of the night here, so I’ve just been catching up–here’s a video of it–and I must say, this was a very impressive performance. And more: it represents a regaining of the initiative after a week of Republican/media chipping away at the stimulus bill. Despite a steady campaign of Republican misinformation about the bill, the President vowed to continue to try to work with them, in the hopes that he’ll be able to make some progress in the long term:

There’s been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it’s not going to happen overnight.

Oh, wait a minute: he was talking about the Iranians there. But there does seem to be a fair amount of stylistic similarity between Republican and Iranian intransigence. Both are trying to sell bluster that seems foolishly overstated and anachronistic now. The Republicans did have an argument: that portions originally included in the stimulus bill would institutionalize new, expanded federal responsibilities in areas like Medicaid, treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and education. (I agree those things should be considered separately–although, unlike the GOP, I think there’s a need for additional federal support of both.) But that argument has been bloated into utter nonsense by Senators, including John McCain–and the moderate caucus, for that matter–who somehow believe that spending money on school construction and weatherizing  of public buildings isn’t stimulus. It is, of course: it creates jobs–and, in the case of weatherization, saves money in the long run. 

Perhaps Obama’s best answer was a very long one, in which he discussed the Republicanobjections to the stimulus package in three specific areas. Here’s a part of it:

Now, maybe philosophically you just don’t think that the federal government should be involved in energy policy.  I happen to disagree with that.  I think that’s the reason why we find ourselves importing more foreign oil now than we did back in the early ’70s when OPEC first formed.  And we can have a respectful debate about whether or not we should be involved in energy policymaking, but don’t suggest that somehow that’s wasteful spending.  That’s exactly what this country needs.
The same applies when it comes to information technologies in health care.  We know that health care is crippling businesses and making us less competitive as well as breaking the banks of families all across America, and part of the reason is we’ve got the most inefficient health care system imaginable.  We’re still using paper — we’re still filing things in triplicate.  Nurses can’t read the prescriptions that doctors have written out.  Why wouldn’t we want to put that on an electronic medical record that will reduce error rates, reduce our long-term cost of health care, and create jobs right now?
Education — yet another example.  The suggestion is why should the federal government be involved in school construction. Well, I visited a school down in South Carolina that was built in the 1850s.  Kids are still learning in that school, as best they can.  When the railroad — it’s right next to a railroad, and when the train runs by, the whole building shakes and the teacher has to stop teaching for a while.  The auditorium is completely broken down; they can’t use it.  So why wouldn’t we want to build state-of-the-art schools with science labs that are teaching our kids the skills they need for the 21st century, that will enhance our economy and, by the way, right now will create jobs?

In the end, it is increasingly clear that the Republicans are peddling from an empty pack–they offer the same anti-government bluster that has worked for the past 30 years, offer tax cuts as the only credible stimulus. Any government spending at all is defined as pork–and all too often, the media have gone along with this because it’s much easier to report the tirades than look at the substance of the bill (as Michael Grunwald has done, consistently, for Time). The Republican path will likely fail on the stimulus bill–and it will fail even more dramatically over time, for the same reason that John McCain failed so decisively against Barack Obama in the election: it is old, intellectually barren and irrelevant to the needs of the moment. There are other paths Republicans can take–they involve using conservative means to achieve the government activism that the public clearly wants. It will be interesting how long it take for the G.O.P. to figure out those paths. Right now, though, they have no weapons to match the cool sanity and reason displayed last night by the President of the United States.