Above the Fold: “The Thrill Is Gone”

Across the Atlantic, Washington's myopia seems more exaggerated than usual

LONDON— From the other side of the Atlantic, Washington’s myopia seems even more exaggerated than usual.

Two days ago in the Sunday Times of London, I learned from Lary Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, that, on the twentieth day of the Obama administration, “the thrill is gone.” Obama, Sabato declared, “will sustain his honeymoon for some time, but it won’t produce the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Jonshon-style reforms that he hoped for.”

The basis for Sabato’s stunningly premature (and utterly idiotic) conclusion: “They expected to roll over Congress, but Congress just doesn’t do that.”

Although Sabato is not especially smart or wise, he is one of those talking heads you see quoted over and over again out of Washington—simply because he has mastered the art of the quotable sound bite. (When Fred Thompson announced for president, Sabato declared it was a case of “Et tu, Brute, Fred.”)

The truth is, Obama’s early days are a gigantic success, a fact which is widely recognized over here, outside the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s “quality” Sunday newspaper in London. For the first time in decades, Europeans are openly envious of our ability to elect such an intelligent and interesting president.

While narrow-minded Washingtonians focus on the fact that not a single Republican Congressman voted for the stimulus package, wiser observers understand that Obama only needed to compromise enough to get two Republican votes in the Senate in order to guarantee the practically instantaneous passage of his number one priority.

Obama was masterful at last night’s press conference: sober, sophisticated and substantive—so naturally there were those who immediately denigrated him as “dull.”

But just as they were during most of last year’s campaign, Obama’s people are still way ahead of the reporters who are covering them. As David Axelrod told Peter Baker of The New York Times, “one thing that we learned over two years is that there’s a whole different conversation in Washington than there is out here.”

Only E.J. Dionne seemed to get it exactly right in The Washington Post:

It took less than three weeks for the real Barack Obama to come into view. He turns out to be both a conciliator and a fighter.

These are not contradictions in his character. They represent different sides of a politician who sees some issues as more susceptible to compromise than others and who wants his adversaries to know that his easygoing style does not make him a pushover…

Initially, Obama hoped to win broad Republican support for his stimulus package, but most Republicans preferred to bloody up this new, young president. Obama adjusted. If the GOP wanted a fight, he would not back down… So Obama’s decision to fight Republicans on the stimulus bill doesn’t mean he’s lost his conciliatory instincts. It means he’s neither a chump nor a wimp. There are rank-and-file cultural conservatives willing to join Obama to end the feuds of the 1960s. But Washington conservatives, insisting that tax cuts are the one and only important matter in American life, are stuck in a 1980s time warp.

In Washington, I’m sure, Obama will be written off regularly over the first one hundred days of his administration. But over here, the celebration over America’s transformation has only just begun.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.