Victorie, Victoria, Victor

On calling the passage of the stimulus bill Obama’s “victory”

New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s thoughts turned to victory this weekend: “The stimulus victory showed that even as president Obama can ambush Washington’s conventional wisdom as if he were still an insurgent.” He wrote this in reaction to the barrage of media commentary which, according to Rich, cast doubt on Obama’s ability to pull the stimulus package through Congress and suggested he was losing control of his message.

In the days following the passage of the stimulus bill, the word “victory” has appeared frequently in leads and headlines as a pat descriptive for Obama’s ostensible achievement. The Chicago Tribune wrote: “Union workers were major supporters of Obama’s campaign, and states with auto assembly plants such as Michigan and Ohio were crucial to his victory.” U.S. News & World Report called it “a key victory in his less-than-a-month-old presidency,” while the AP noted that Obama “savor[ed] his first major victory in Congress.” And David Muir at ABC News penned the following lead: “Fresh off his victory on the stimulus plan, President Obama will push forward this week with other aspects of his administration’s plans to jumpstart the economy.”

But “victory” is a complicated word. Merriam-Webster primarily defines “victory” as “the overcoming of an enemy or antagonist” and secondarily as “achievement of mastery or success in a struggle or endeavor against odds or difficulties.” In his column, Rich mostly cleaves to the second definition of the word “victory,” but even so, the first definition is what more easily comes to mind. GOP, vanquished!, or take that, suckers!

This may seem like a pretty benign criticism, as much quibbling about semantics seems. But Rich’s words—“ambush,” “insurgent,” the clever sentence “Having checked the box on attempted bipartisanship, Obama can now move in for the kill”—dredge up partisan muck about who beat whom. The v-word tends to set the legislative scene as a discrete battle of sides, which belies the more complicated network of compromises underscoring the process.

To be fair, most articles’ “victory” clauses were followed by lengthy explanations—detailing the work to be done, speculating on the likely repercussions of the partisan détente, and poking holes in the legislation. Still, casting the bill as a political victory puts the spotlight primarily on the partisan tug-of-war that manifested itself throughout the stimulus debates—rather than on the law itself. It hypes the current Republican mantra that the bill wasn’t a bipartisan product (“GOP senators say Obama off to bad start,” blared one recent, rather obtuse, headline), and distracts from any productive discussion of what bipartisanship in fact means. And it removes the debate from any context other than that which boosts political savvy and “mastering the Hill” as ends in and of themselves.

The discussion of Congressional (and White House) kumbaya is bound to continue with the housing bill that Obama spoke about today, not to mention with future projects. And, as occasionally is the case, if legislators choose to cull selected quotes from news reports in order to prove points about the state of bipartisanship on the Hill, the v-word might easily begin to take on its other, less helpful definition.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.