You might have missed it, but a key moment in Barack Obama's young presidency occurred March 18 as he began his trip to California to promote his $3.6 trillion budget proposal. Heading for his helicopter, Obama made a statement about the AIG bonuses, and he didn't use the word "inherited." As in "we inherited this crisis."
"Ultimately, I'm responsible, I'm the president of the United States," Obama told reporters. "The buck stops with me." That makes it official: Barack Obama didn't start the financial crisis, but he owns it now.
Before anyone gives the president an award for political courage, remember that provisions regarding the bonuses and who knows what else were buried deep inside the $787 billion economic stimulus bill that Obama and his fellow Democrats rushed through Congress. Every single Republican in the House voted against it, and all but three GOP senators did the same. There's no way Obama can blame the stimulus, and its contents, on anyone other than himself.
"What's beginning to happen is his actions are starting to have consequences," a Republican pollster told me. "And this is one of those. He hurried everybody through that process, and it's now his actions that are causing things that people are unhappy about."
Think back to the day when House Minority Leader John Boehner held up a copy of the stimulus bill it must have been six inches thick and said, "Eleven hundred pages that not one member of this body has read. Not one." Urging lawmakers to vote no, Boehner continued: "What happened to the promise that we're going to let the American people see what's in this bill for 48 hours? But no" at that point, Boehner dropped the massive bill to the floor with a thud "we don't have time to do that."
So the bill was hurried through, and Obama signed it in a flash. And now we're finding out that there were, in fact, problems that should have been the subject of public debate just like Boehner said. Once-confident Democrats are worried, and Republicans have a serious I-told-you-so opportunity.
As they argued, Obama hit the road to California to sell something the budget plan that he and his fellow Democrats should be able to pass nearly entirely on their own. Most of the spending measures, apart from the president's health-care reform proposal (which we know virtually nothing about) and his energy cap-and-trade plan (which Republicans now call "cap-and-tax") could be passed by a simple majority, with Democratic votes alone. And yet Obama, worried about opposition from moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans, is having to stump for his plan. And he has recruited one of his top political operatives, David Plouffe, to create an unprecedented grassroots-and-netroots campaign for it, as well.
The sales job is likely to get harder in the days ahead. Obama took a major hit on Friday when the Congressional Budget Office said his budget plans have underestimated deficits in coming years by $2.3 trillion. How much more will a worried public accept? "Bailout fatigue is palpable," a top GOP Hill aide told me.
But Obama, by all reports, plans to push forward with his plans to overhaul health care, energy, and education no matter what the cost. "We have to ... start establishing a foundation for long-term economic growth," he said on the way to California. "That involves making investments on health care and energy and education." Does it really? The budget debate will answer that question.
Recently, Republicans have been heartened by some astonishing public opinion numbers. Pollster Scott Rasmussen found that more people, by a margin of 41 percent to 39 percent, would support a Republican than a Democrat in the next congressional race. A poll taken for National Public Radio showed similar results. Given that Democrats have trounced Republicans on that question for a long time, the new results are raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill.
So while the numbers shift beneath him, Obama hits the campaign trail. But sooner or later, he'll need to come back to his problems, because it's his crisis now.