In the run-up to his January 20 inauguration and in the days that immediately followed it, Barack Obama essentially farmed out the public-relations component of his first major initiative.
Instead of assuming the role as salesman-in-chief for an economic stimulus package that he considered vital to his presidency, Mr. Obama remained above the fray while more polarizing Democratic congressional figures like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barney Frank pleaded its case and combated opposition talking points in press conferences and television appearances.
The idea, it seemed, was to free the new president to pursue a public posture of bipartisanship – on January 27, one day before the House voted on the initial version of the stimulus plan, Mr. Obama paid a visit to the weekly meeting of that body’s Republicans – while lesser Democrats did the dirty work, and took the polling hit, that pushing the plan through Congress entailed.
It wasn’t the worst strategy, but the stimulus opposition proved stiffer than most people expected. Republicans lined up in lockstep against it, hyping relatively inexpensive individual line items in an effort to portray the bill as an exercise in extravagant waste, and many of them – like House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, who branded it Speaker Pelosi’s stimulus bill – turned Mr. Obama’s hands-off approach to their advantage.
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