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Obama takes charge

The president made a forceful case for his agenda. Republican opposition could carry a price.

February 25, 2009

President Obama had not yet begun to speak Tuesday night before House Republican leader John A. Boehner released a statement decrying "mountains of debt ... for a spending spree that we simply cannot afford" and fuming about raising taxes during a recession. And yet Boehner's remarks also hinted at the quandary faced by the GOP in these early weeks of the Obama era. Republicans, Boehner insisted, "want to be partners with the president" but are stymied by congressional Democrats.

It's no wonder that Boehner would prefer to fight with his congressional colleagues than with the new president. Five weeks ago, Obama inherited a collapsing economy and a rattled public. Since then, jobs have disappeared in shocking numbers; the Dow Jones industrial average has lost 11% of its value since Inauguration Day. Yet Obama remains an enormously popular figure, committed to a forceful, activist government, armed with a national mandate to intervene in the economy and to restore America's standing abroad. He has ordered an end to torture and vowed to close Guantanamo; he has signed legislation to protect workers against discrimination and has overcome Republican opposition to his $787-billion economic stimulus package. Two polls this week suggest that about two-thirds of Americans approve of his performance.

In his address to Congress and in comments by administration officials, Obama pressed that advantage. Speaking on background, advisors said the administration is close to announcing a plan to withdraw almost 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq over the next 19 months. That would vastly scale down that costly debacle; it would, as Obama said Tuesday, return "Iraq to its people and responsibly [end] this war." Meanwhile, he laced his sobering economic analysis with some old Democratic bromides -- vague promises to cut unpopular programs -- but also with a sound explanation of why aid to banks is not a reward for bad investments but a protection for borrowers and communities. "We cannot," he rightly noted, "afford to govern out of anger."

For Boehner and other Republicans, their refusal to back the stimulus plan has bolstered party morale. But it's at considerable risk. A new New York Times poll found that 79% of those surveyed believe that the GOP should be doing more to cooperate with Obama, compared with just 15% who said the party should stick to its core principles. One speech will not persuade supporters of the Iraq war or critics of the economic stimulus. But there is, for the GOP, the looming danger of a long trip into the political wilderness. If fractiousness spoils the chance for progress, the American people will not soon forget.

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