Obama's Administration of Grand Gestures

Then there is Iraq. Ending the war immediately -- defined as within sixteen months -- was the cornerstone of the Obama campaign. But when he met this week with his national security advisers President Obama did not mention the timetable. The Washington Post editors noted:

Accounts of the meeting suggested that Mr. Obama spent much of the time listening to reports from those who know Iraq best -- Gens. David H. Petraeus and Ray Odierno and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. In addition, the president's statement did not cite the 16-month withdrawal timetable that became one of the signal slogans of his campaign -- though his spokesman mentioned it. We hope that's evidence that Mr. Obama will not repeat one of President Bush's greatest mistakes -- allowing ideological and political considerations to trump good military judgment.

Perhaps there is something to all of John McCain's warnings about the danger and impracticability of a fixed timetable for withdrawal. And once again it is harder than it once looked to depart from the policies of the reviled Bush administration.

And then on the domestic front, President Obama has declared a new era of bipartisan cooperation -- but, once again, not much has changed in practice. The House Democrats have cobbled together a mish-mash of spending items under the "stimulus" label (although most of the spending will not actually work its way into the economy in time to affect the recession). "Earmarks" have been banished, but only by re-definition as a host of pet projects and ludicrous pork now are unabashedly lodged in the legislation in plain sight. And to top it off, Republicans were entirely excluded from the bill-writing process.

Nancy Pelosi boasted, "Yes, we wrote the bill. Yes, we won the election." President Obama, who had intoned that we must but away "childish things" and the petty grievances of the past, seems not much concerned about reining in his Democratic allies, even for the sake of improving the bill to meet his own policy requirements. Indeed, he echoed Pelosi with an "I won" line of his own during a meeting with Republicans on Friday. Although he promises another get together with Republicans next week, the Pelosi bill continues barreling down the legislative track. In short, the "bipartisan stimulus bill" is neither bipartisan nor a stimulus for the ailing economy.

There are some common themes here: a straining to declare the dawning of a new age, the conceit that no one had ever thought to do these things (and that everyone missed how easy this all is), an effort to conceal the real decision-making (which now is driven deep into the bureaucracy), and the hint that there really isn't much new here at all. This may be the inevitable result of a candidacy premised on the foggy notion of "change" without firm policy underpinnings.

Now this, of course, is just the opening round. Perhaps the gestures will be followed up by actual shifts in policy or dramatic departures from the legislative process as we have known it. Maybe Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will adopt the spirit of bipartisanship which Obama talked about. But we are learning that gestures mean a great deal to the new administration and, for now, take the place of real innovation. So far, we have an abundance of moral preening and only the illusion that all is being made anew.

Those who were hoping for more might begin to fret. Those who feared much more might breathe a sigh of relief. This much is clear: aside from operatic stagecraft not much is different after all.