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The People Who Can Make or Break Obama

President Obama managed to pass his stimulus bill. It was not exactly a difficult task, considering the overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. But if the last few weeks are any guide, things may get considerably tougher for Obama from here on out. There are six people who are going to make life more difficult and complicated for the president. How they perform and how the president reacts will, to a large extent, determine the course of his presidency.

Tim Geithner: To say the treasury secretary has gotten off to a slow start would be a great understatement. In short, he “bombed” in his debut as the architect of the bank bailout plan. Not only did he not have a plan, but his image was that of a callow grad student and his performance uninspiring. The markets tanked and the critics carped. If the markets, other government officials, and elected politicians lose confidence in Treasury Secretary Geithner, the entire Obama financial recovery plan is in for difficult times. Any further missteps by Geithner or other senior advisers are only going to rekindle doubts about the president’s own hiring skills.

Nancy Pelosi: Almost single-handedly Speaker Nancy Pelosi destroyed President Obama’s image as a moderate conciliator. Her pork-a-thon spending bill dressed up as a stimulus and her decision to exclude Republicans entirely from the legislative process not only revived the Republican opposition, but needlessly sacrificed the Democrats’ appeal to moderate swing voters. Now that her appetite has been whetted (and it is clear the president has no interest or ability in restraining her), there is no telling how far to the left she will leap. The danger is a series of hyper-partisan battles over “card check,” health care, energy, and the like, in which the Republicans will be able to cast their opponents, including the president, as ideologically out of step.

Eric Cantor: The Republican whip was able to line up two successive “perfect” votes in opposition to the spending bill. Even the New York Times is touting him as a Newt Gingrich-like figure in opposition. If he is able, along with House Minority Leader Boehner (who demonstrated some theatrical flare himself) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to organize principled opposition to the Democrats’ liberal agenda and provide a stream of alternative conservative ideas, he will have the Republicans well positioned for 2010. Moreover, the heat will be on the Blue Dog Democrats, whose willingness to sacrifice their own political viability for the sake of party loyalty will be severely tested.

Jim Tedisco: Not exactly a household name, Jim Tedisco is the Republican candidate in New York’s 20th Congressional district, which is headed for a special election at the end of March to fill the seat vacated by the appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate. It is the first test as to whether we are in a new age of Obama, the beginning of a titanic shift in American politics toward a permanent Democratic majority, or the beginning of an adverse reaction against one-party Democratic rule in Washington. This is the first race following the stimulus plan and will, in some sense, be an early referendum on what non-liberal voters think of the mammoth spending bill. And those Blue Dogs will be nervously watching the results for a signal as to whether adherence to the Pelosi-Reid agenda will be injurious to their political health.

Roland Burris: The senator from Blago-land is once again in the news, this time because he omitted mention in his sworn testimony early this year that he spoke three times to Blago’s brother about raising funds for the governor. After Burris revealed the contacts in a new affidavit, he faced a press feeding frenzy. The Illinois GOP is calling for him to resign and the Democratic Senate is nervously eying the contradictory transcripts. The dilemma for the Senate and the White House is once again how to deal with the ooze of corruption from Illinois. Will they put a halt to the budding storyline — which includes figures such as Rep. Charlie Rangel, Sen. Chris Dodd, and Reps. James Moran and Jack Murtha? It is getting hard to deny that the Democratic Party is rife with corruption. If the Democrats don’t start throwing the miscreants under the proverbial bus, expect this to become a major factor in the 2010 elections.

Ron Gettelfinger: UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has been playing hardball with GM and Chrysler, so far refusing to provide meaningful concessions which would help keep the car companies out of bankruptcy. In some sense, this is a smart ploy, which relies on the Obama administration’s indulgence and the Treasury’s continued support for the beleaguered domestic automakers. It is not a bad bet that the Obama team will shrink from insisting that the UAW adjust its contracts to meet the non-U.S.-owned auto companies’ labor costs and work rules. If Gettelfinger keeps this up and Obama does in fact accede to the UAW’s wishes, he will have sent an unmistakable signal that he is the pawn of Big Labor. The taxpayers and American business will both be the poorer. Moreover, the public may realize that when Obama ran on the platform pledging to throw special interests out of Washington, he only meant the other guy’s special interests.

All of these people can potentially make governance more difficult for the president. But the direction of his presidency remains his. Will Obama become increasingly partisan and veer sharply left or will he make good on the themes of his campaign for a post-partisan, moderate administration? Will he work to remove corruption from his party or be a passive participant in the newest culture of corruption? Will he repeat his predessor’s errors in sticking with advisers long after they have proved less than competent? The choices are his, but these six figures will certainly put him to the test.