WASHINGTON—Two impressions emerge from President Barack Obama's first week in office:
Partisanship has reached a tipping point when the new president is circling the fire hydrant with a conservative talk-radio personality.
And, the new president is sounding an awful lot like the old one.
Let's roll the tape.
"I won. I will trump you on that."
That's Barack Obama a few days ago, according to The Associated Press, speaking to Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona during a meeting with congressional leaders about the proposed stimulus package. Kyl had the audacity to question giving tax credits to people who do not owe federal income taxes.
Rewinding to 2004: "I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style."
That's George W. Bush after his re-election, explaining his assumption that the American people approved of his many plans, including Social Security reform and the war on terror.
Obama and Bush each mistakenly assumed that his election was a national mandate for his policies, rather than a rejection of alternatives. Bush was re-elected primarily because his opponent was weak and because Americans typically don't like to switch presidents mid-war.
Obama benefited similarly when his opponent temporarily forgot who he was and, most important, the economy collapsed. Still, 46 percent of Americans voted for John McCain and 48 percent voted in 2004 for John Kerry.
If Obama had a mandate at all, it was to heal the divisions that have plagued politics for so long. No more partisan bickering, he promised, though there's only about a smirk's difference between Obama and Bush, stylistically. While one is bring-'em-on confrontational and the other a passive-aggressive Mr. Cool, both reveal a staggering sense of personal empowerment.
Obama was cool even when, at that same GOP meeting, he urged Republicans to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh. No anger, just angst. "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done."
Excuse me, Mr. President, but you've been baited by none other than the Master Fisherman. Limbaugh tossed you a lure and you chomped.
Never start a land war with Asia. Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel (or who owns the patent on the microchip). Never let rabble-rousers get under your skin—especially those whose popularity in some circles compares favorably with your own and whose earnings make bailed-out bank presidents envious.
While we're at it, tread very carefully around the implication that conservatives cling to their talk show hosts out of anger and frustration. That may be true, but the backfire Obama felt in West Virginia was a gentle zephyr compared to the blowback that can be bellowed by El Rushbo.
Obama's pique at recent Limbaugh commentaries is understandable, but his reaction suggests a lack of playground wisdom. To backtrack, Limbaugh said he hopes Obama will fail because success would mean a socialist America. In language that would not endear him to his professed mentor, the late William F. Buckley, Limbaugh said:
"We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles ... because his father was black, because this is the first black president, we've got to accept this."
Now there's an image we could have lived without.
It's fair to say that we've sufficiently celebrated the milestone of electing our first biracial president, but it's simply incorrect to assert that hope for Obama's success is guilt-induced. Fear-induced is more like it. Most want Obama to succeed because they'd like to avoid bread lines in the near future.
Conservatives of both parties justly fear that too much of the stimulus package is aimed at non-stimulus programs. There's plenty to criticize, but shouting socialism in a crowded panic room is laughable under the circumstances. Bush gave Nanny a tenured position in Washington with his Medicare bill, farm subsidies and public education spending. It was under the GOP's watch that the nationalization of America's banking and insurance programs began.
There we go again.
Trying to assign blame—or amp up rhetoric to satisfy the market's gargantuan appetite for ratings—is counterproductive in the present. If Obama wants to rumble, he's got an eager foe in Limbaugh. But if he really wants to win, he might take a page from his predecessor's playbook: Never dignify your enemies with recognition.