A Cautious Obama Picking His Fights Carefully

Barack Obama won an impressive victory on November 4 and has overwhelming Democratic majorities in the House and Senate on his side. But that doesn't mean he is going to get everything he wants. And it doesn't even mean he is going to try. That's what we've been seeing this week: the fine art of picking his fights and conserving political capital.

First was the Georgia Senate race. Sure, the president-elect recorded some calls and sent his staffers into the state. And, yes, the AFL-CIO blew some more union cash collected from their members. But Obama studiously declined to campaign in person. It turned out to be a smart move. He might have converted a double-digit loss to a high single-digit loss, but he would not have rescued Democrat Jim Martin. And had he appeared, the loss would have been seen as a personal rebuke. Lesson: don't pick political fights you aren't going to win.

Next up is the auto bailout. Obama has gone from lauding the auto industry as the backbone of  the American economy to cautioning that a viable plan to revive the industry and protect the taxpayers is essential. Moreover, he isn't personally on the phone twisting arms and cajoling his former Democratic allies in the Senate. It might have something to do with bailout fatigue and the latest poll showing the public is fed up with the car makers. (When the Big Three can't get the public in Michigan on their side, you know they're in trouble.) Congressional Democrats may whine that he is not more involved, but he (at least at this stage) has not shown any inclination to immerse himself in the morass of trying to cobble together conflicting interests (i.e., environmentalists and labor advocates) to construct a bailout deal which the public disdains and which likely would only be an initial down payment on the needed rescue funds. (He seems content to let Rahm Emanuel work out some interim deal.) The lesson once again: don't publicly clamor for something you can't deliver.

What does this portend for the Obama administration? It would be a mistake to conclude that the president-elect doesn't have big plans. Rather, it leads one to the conclusion that he's not going to fritter away his political chits even before he is sworn in. He has huge goals, so his approach is coming into focus: be conciliatory on everything but the big ticket items he really wants.

First, we see the conciliation. President-elect Obama delivered a line-up of national security nominees that didn't quite send a thrill up the leg of conservatives, but did surprise and please them. He enlisted Paul Volker, Ronald Reagan's right hand man at the Fed who beat back inflation in the 1980s, and Christina Romer, whose research on the impact of tax cuts cheered conservatives.