Ornstein reflects on presidency so far, looks forward

February 17, 2009

Norman Ornstein and Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones.

Norman Ornstein and Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones.

February 17, 2009 — The speaker at today’s brown-bag lunch, Norman Orstein, was introduced by Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones as “one of the most familiar commentators and analysts in American politics.” Jones noted that Ornstein was the most frequent guest on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, as well as the first person to make two appearances on The Colbert Report. “A dubious honor, perhaps,” Jones joked.

The subject of Ornstein’s talk was “The New Administration: How Long the Honeymoon?” and the answer wasn’t long in coming. “The honeymoon is a little bit like Madonna and Guy Ritchie, and you’re not sure which is which,” Ornstein said, showing why he was chosen as Comedy Central’s first pollster. Plain-spoken yet humorous, he mixed comic lines with tough criticism aimed at both sides of the political divide.

Ornstein, with the American Enterprise Institute, first met Barack Obama when he came to the U.S. Senate. “What he showed is something most presidential candidates never show, a natural executive ability,” Ornstein said, ticking off a list of presidents and candidates who, in his estimation, didn’t — Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and John McCain, among others.

While Obama’s strengths haven’t erased governmental dysfunction, Ornstein stepped back and put things into perspective: “Three weeks into the presidency, Barack Obama has signed a sharp expansion of children’s health insurance, a law providing for greater equality for women in the workplace, and the largest economic package in the history of the country. That’s not half bad.”

And this despite staunch opposition from the remaining Republicans in Congress, who are “down to the hard core.” Having survived the 2006 and 2008 elections, they’re in no mood to compromise — nor ideologically disposed to do so. But is this in their own best interests? Orstein thought not: “I really would not want to be a party that’s basically out there telling the American people, ‘We’re rooting for this to fail.’ The American people won’t get behind that.”

While Obama was able to get the stimulus package through Congress, “It gets tougher from this point. This was a bill that gave out goodies to large numbers of people. Wait until you get to ones that take away,” Ornstein warned, ticking off immense challenges such as health care, entitlements, and climate change.

Looking forward, one factor working in Obama’s favor is that Democrats in Congress believe that their fate and that of the new president are linked, Ornstein said. Still, “it’s going to be an interesting time, in the Chinese sense, to get from here to there over the next two years.”

This article was written by Leighton Walter Kille and the photos taken by Janell Sims, both of the Shorenstein Center.