I'm normally a fan of Dana Milbank, the Washington Post columnist, one of whose specialties is tweaking the overblown egos of the politicians who overpopulate the capital. But occasionally, Milbank wakes up with his head tightly wedged into his rear end, if you take my meaning, and Wednesday, July 30, was one of those days.
Wednesday's column was devoted to what Milbank sees as Obama's exalted ego, and I am grateful to that most excellent blogger, Josh Marshall, for bringing it to my attention. Milbank's opening sentences tell it all: "Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee.
"Fresh from his presidential-style world tour, during which foreign leaders and American generals lined up to show him affection, Obama settled down to some presidential-style business in Washington yesterday. He ordered up a teleconference with the (current president's) Treasury Secretary, granted an audience to the Pakistani prime minister and had his staff arrange for the chairman of the Federal Reserve to give him a briefing. Then he went up to Capitol Hill to be adored by House Democrats in a presidential-style pep rally." Milbank's column continues in that vein.
In other words, Obama is acting a little too presidential for Milbank, for a man who's not yet, and may never be, a resident of the White House. But is that really true? Please understand that I am not accusing Milbank of accusing Obama of acting like what some white people down South used to call "an uppity Negro" (or a word to that effect).
But I fear I must disagree with most of the examples Milbank cites. As I recall it, Obama was baited into making his international tour by his Republican opponent, grumpy old John McCain, who said the Illinois senator didn't know enough about the great big world out there. So Obama obligingly went abroad. And while he was greeted cordially enough by the generals and foreign leaders with whom he met, isn't that how you'd expect them to behave toward the man they may well have to deal with as their commander-in-chief or the president of the world's only superpower, less than six months from now?
Moreover, far from showing Obama affection, General David Petraeus publicly disagreed with him on the desirability of a timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq. Which was less surprising than the fact that Iraq's Premier Maliki generally agreed with that timetable, kicking the legs right out from under the McCain-Bush argument that any timetable was unthinkable, and that Senator McCain had any unique expertise on Iraq.
As for Obama's talks with Treasury Secretary Paulson and Fed Chairman Bernanke, they strike me as entirely appropriate given the state of the economy and the necessity for Obama, if elected, to hit the ground running to battle what polls show is Americans' most serious concern. Perhaps rather than the "extended phone conversation" with Paulson, reported elsewhere in the Post, in which Obama discussed the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the new housing law, Milbank would have preferred a meeting like the early ones Bush held with his cabinet. Those meetings were compared by then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, with those of "a blind man in a room full of deaf people." Nor was Bush's Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, any more impressed with him. Despite being a staunch Republican, Greenspan said he much preferred Democrat Bill Clinton's economic policies to those of the cowboy from Crawford.
And, yes, Obama also met with the visiting prime minister of Pakistan. You may recall, Milbank, that in a November 1999 interview, candidate Bush was unable even to name the president of Pakistan, Perez Musharraf. In contrast, Obama held what he called a "productive and wide-ranging discussion" with Pakistani prime minister Yousof Raza Gillani, whose name he apparently had no trouble remembering.
Milbank is also upset because Obama travelled around Washington yesterday "in a bubble more insulating than the actual president's. Traffic was shut down for him as he zoomed about town in a long, presidential-style motorcade," and when he met with Democratic members of Congress "Capitol Police cleared the halls -- just as they do for the actual president. The Secret Service hustled him in through a side door -- just as they do for the actual president."
Perhaps Milbank should complain to the Secret Service about that.
As I understand it, arrangements for traffic stops, motorcades, and protectees' entrances and exits at such places as the Capitol are made by the Secret Service in cooperation with the Washington's Metropolitan Police Department and the Capitol Police, and neither the candidate nor his staff is responsible for them. Furthermore, Obama began receiving Secret Service protection before other candidates because of threats against his life and safety.
Maybe Obama's ego pushed him too far in telling Congressional Democrats that "I have become the symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions." But millions of Americans would probably agree with him. Millions more, including me, would agree that Obama is quite properly doing what needs to be done to meet McCain's (and Hillary Clinton's earlier) assertion that the next president must be ready to face the nation's most important problems on Day One of his administration, something Bush conspicuously failed to do, as 9/11 so disastrously demonstrated.
I also question Milbank's criticism of "the supremely confident Obama -- nearly 100 days from the election, he pronounces that 'the odds of us winning are very good'." What would Milbank prefer Obama to say? "Although I am ahead in virtually every poll of voters and electoral votes, I fully expect to lose this election." Perhaps it would take that to make Milbank happy. Sorry about that, Dana. This column makes you look foolish.
Update: I now learn from reading Huffington Post reporter Jason Linkins that Milbank took Obama's remark about his becoming the symbol of "the possibility of America returning to our best traditions" completely out of context and that Obama was attempting to diminish his own importance rather than inflating it. The context, as cited by Linkins and others, has Obama saying: "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have become a symbol of the possibility of America's returning to our best traditions." So Milbank looks even more foolish.