Obama's First Visit

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Well, we've made it through President Obama's first visit to Southern California.

If you escaped the traffic shutdowns, his two days here probably seemed pleasant enough.

There was the warm welcome in Republican Orange County, the photo-op in Pomona, and yesterday's town hall in Los Angeles.

All dwarfed in the public eye, of course, by Obama's session on Jay Leno's couch. There were a few jokes. Some banter. And serious talk about economic stimulus funds and the scary times we're living in.

Now that the president has come and gone, what have we learned?

That question was posed this morning at a breakfast hosted by Los Angeles Magazine. The setting was Melrose Avenue, the audience a mix of civic players, authors and journalists.

Both of the panelists were Obama supporters, but not evenly so.

Gregory Rodriguez, the LA Times columnist and founder of Zócalo, the public lecture series that has probably brought about more civil discussion of L.A. issues than any other group in recent years, was bothered by the week's adulation.

He said the local politicians who jostled for seats near Obama yesterday reminded him of students in high school competing to get close to a popular teacher.

Rodriguez has heard enough talk of “historic moments” whenever Obama does something for the first time. It's time, he argues, that the President's friends and fans start judging him on what he gets done.

Which, Rodriguez says, isn't much so far.

The other panelist was John Emerson, a leading Democratic attorney and chairman of the board that guides the Music Center.

He worked in the Clinton White House from day one and says no one should underestimate how much time it takes for a new Administration to go from zero to 60.

Give Obama a break, he said. The new guys still need to get their governing legs, but are doing fine.

He excepted the recent fumbling of an appointment with political implications in Los Angeles.

Obama seemed all set to nominate as his head of the civil rights division Thomas Saenz, the legal counsel in City Hall to Mayor Villaraigosa.

Saenz used to be big in MALDEF, the Latino-oriented legal organization, and led challenges to Proposition 187, the initiative that sought to block illegals from using social services.

Talk show hosts and blogs on the right drummed up outrage, real or faked, about Saenz being a radical Chicano – even labeling him part of some insidious conspiracy to return the Southwest to Mexico.

The last time that fiction worked was in 2003 when Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor of California, ran in the recall election that let Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor.

Bustamante was open to criticism for being liberal and bland. But a secret Aztlan soldier? That cracked up anyone who knew him.

Same with Saenz. Rodriguez, who is no fan of Villaraigosa, laughs at the suggestion that Saenz is a militant. But it worked. Saenz wasn't nominated.

Obama's capitulation to the wingnuts (my term) is a troubling sign that the President isn't confident enough yet to deliver, Rodriguez argues.

On that point, Emerson agrees. He compared the Saenz episode to Clinton's surrender on Lani Guinier, his nominee to the civil rights post.

The right hated that Guinier was an activist lawyer for the NAACP on racial quotas. Clinton withdrew her name and both the right and left rated the episode a misstep.

Emerson thinks that with experience Clinton would have pushed Guinier through – and he expects that a more confident Obama could have gotten Saenz confirmed.

The breakfast audience – again, mostly Obama voters I'd guess – seemed willing to cut the new president all the slack he needs. For now.

New figures today peg the unemployment rate at almost 11 percent in LA County. And the national debt is rising by a trillion dollars. The honeymoon can't last forever.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

White House photo: Pete Souza