"It is not something we're going to be able to do overnight," Barack Obama said as he sent his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, off to the region. Or was it when he was talking about closing Guantánamo? Or, perhaps, when he was discussing the impact of his stimulus package on the cratering American economy? Actually, the President used a version of the line multiple times during his first week in office a week that, rather than offering the catharsis of a bright new American morning, summoned the groaning image of a supertanker attempting a U-turn in a tiny Arctic bay. The weather in Washington was cold and cloudy. The President seemed overcast as well, stowing his megawatt smile as he acknowledged one of the more depressing days in U.S. economic history the day that major companies laid off more than 75,000 employees. I barely saw him smile all week.
This is quite a gamble Obama is taking. Just as he could have opted for the adrenaline rush of grand rhetoric in his Inaugural Address but didn't, he could have turned any of the profoundly serious actions of his first week into a whiz-bang photo opportunity. He could have planted solar panels and a wind turbine on the White House roof or blasted the Bush Administration as he signed an Executive Order banning torture or lacerated the bankers who got us into the economic mess. But that's not his style, apparently. He has reversed the tactical, win-the-news-cycle sensibility of recent presidencies. During his first week in office, at least, he opted for strategy and substance over showbiz. (See pictures of Obama's Inauguration.)
Which is not to say there weren't symbolic gestures. But the groups Obama lavished his attention on were an unlikely bunch: diplomats, Muslims and Republicans. The gestures involved a geographic humility that was a clean break from the presidential past: he went to the State Department, to the Capitol, and appeared on the Al Arabiya television network before granting an interview to any of the American channels. In each case, the gesture was made more for its long-term effect than its short-term bang.
The President visited the State Department on his second full day in office to send a message: diplomacy will now take precedence over military force in U.S. foreign policy and his Administration's will be a diplomacy of constant, persistent attention to the world's problem areas rather than slapdash summitry. The occasion for Obama's visit was the announcement of two special envoys, Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, both of whom represent a silent reproach to the Bush Administration. Holbrooke will have the near impossible task of untangling the mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a problem exacerbated by recent American inattention to detail in the area. (The deterioration toward chaos in Pakistan, especially, surprised some of the President's closest aides.)
The Mitchell appointment will probably prove controversial among Israel's neoconservative American supporters and, quite possibly, with Israel's government, especially if the Likud Party wins the Feb. 10 elections. To Likudniks, the very act of naming an envoy is suspicious: Mitchell is likely to do something the Bush Administration rarely did ask for Israeli concessions, however minor. The Mitchell appointment and the Al Arabiya interview are of a piece: respect will be paid to Muslims by the Obama Administration. The long-term goal is to weaken the regional tyrants and extremists by depriving them of the Great Satan caricature the first step toward a more plausible U.S. policy in the area, the threshold necessary for creative negotiating to begin.
Obama's almost fetishistic pursuit of Republicans two hours spent with the crabby minority at the Capitol! is another attempt to deprive his enemies of a Great Satan. The President will make some Republican-oriented concessions, dropping some of the cheesier spending from the stimulus plan. He will get some GOP votes for his stimulus package, but more important, he is establishing himself as a relentlessly reasonable and polite presence in town and his comity is making it all the more difficult for buffoons like Rush Limbaugh to influence the tone of the Republican opposition.
Obama will win a great victory on the stimulus plan. But it will be his last for a while. By June, there will be grousing that Obama hasn't pulled us out of the recession yet. By December, there will be complaints that his diplomacy hasn't achieved breakthroughs. The President's best-case scenario is similar to Reagan's: that the bad news will begin to dissipate by the midterm elections of 2010, limiting the Democratic losses, and disappear entirely by 2012. Reagan was lucky in that way. Obama is facing more difficult problems and might not be so lucky. But at least, for the moment, he is paying his public the great compliment of taking his job seriously, focusing on the long-term substance rather than the bread and circuses that masqueraded as leadership in the recent past.