Ushering in the day of reckoning

Recently, an influential member of the Washington press corps offered me his blunt opinion of politicians who rail against the way business is done inside the Beltway. “I hate the anti-D.C. stuff from pols,” he grumbled. “Why do they all want to come here?”

In other words, this is Washington. Love it or leave it.

It’s not an uncommon sentiment among D.C.’s chattering class. For decades, from Capitol Hill to K Street, ideological bent has been less determinative in the way the nation’s laws are written than a common fealty to what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith 20 years ago dubbed How Washington Works.

But on Tuesday night, America got its first glimpse at a new chapter being penned by its 44th president. “We have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter or the next election,” President Obama told a joint session of Congress. “And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day. Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.”

To usher in that day of reckoning, Obama ticked off some of the changes his administration had already adopted.

First, no more budget gimmicks designed to mask the true size of the deficit — a timeless Washington tactic that has never failed to engender quiet, bipartisan support.

Second, Obama was appointing a “stimulus czar” — a former Secret Service agent and inspector general known for aggressively ferreting out corruption — to scrutinize the distribution of economic recovery funds for waste, fraud and abuse.

Third, a new website — — will allow anyone with access to the Internet to track how each dollar of the stimulus package is spent.

Nix the accounting tricks? Install a fiscal watchdog after Congress has granted you check-signing authority? Open the federal books to muckraking bloggers, academics and wonks from all walks? Why would anyone responsible for drafting a budget in these dire economic times volunteer to make his own task harder? That’s just not the way Washington works.

Well, this president has known that for some time, and he set out to do something about it.

When Obama first arrived on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he spoke of the hunger for government accountability he saw among middle-class suburbanites in his home state. “Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon.”

In his announcement speech two years ago, Obama framed his presidential campaign as a cause for rethinking the Beltway’s conventional wisdom. “I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,” he said. “But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”

On Tuesday night, the president confirmed that he means business when it comes to changing this city’s business-as-usual. And after his speech, a CNN instant poll found that 92 percent of Americans approved.

So while D.C. insiders may question the political wisdom in the president surrendering some of his newly won power, there’s a lesson for us all.

The reckoning has begun.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.