With President Obama’s signature affixed to the economic stimulus bill, his landmark victory can be put in proper political context. Regardless of that bill’s manifest imperfections and the messy legislative process, the new administration achieved a difficult objective on the tightest possible schedule. His Republican opponents congratulate themselves for remaining unified in defeat and whine about the president’s refusal to capitulate to them — but in fact it is they who have failed in the initial episode of a confrontation that will certainly continue for the coming four years.

It is impossible to understand what happened in Washington and the nation over the past few weeks without recognizing that the stimulus is historic in size and scope. Even if the spending plans ought to have been even larger, as many economists advocated, this $787 billion package represents an enormous departure from the conservative ideology (if not the actual fiscal practice) that has ruled American politics over the past three decades.

Overcoming the strong institutional bias against deficit spending on this scale is an accomplishment, even in the current climate of fear. The false notion that government should never spend more than it collects in revenue still exerts a powerful influence on the minds of voters — and was reinforced by misinformed media commentary throughout the debate over the stimulus.

Entering the Oval Office, Obama established a daunting and somewhat contradictory set of priorities for himself. He promised to remake the American economy even as he tried to revive it, with green jobs, better health care and improved schools. Economic conditions grew increasingly dire as he and his newly assembled team tried to create a plan to reverse the deflating spiral of dread and despair.

At the same time, he also vowed to break the partisan deadlock in Washington by reaching out to the Republican opposition with respect and friendship. Many members of his own party doubted the wisdom of that course, knowing that the embittered minority was unlikely to respond in kind — and of course it didn’t. But had the president rolled over the Republicans from the beginning, he would rightly have been blamed for violating the trust he had earned during the campaign among independents and at least some Republicans.

In his effort to honor that pledge of bipartisanship, he surrendered too much too early in negotiations over the stimulus. But in the end, he won — and if he must return to Capitol Hill for more spending, as he almost surely will, then he need not make the same mistake again.

Nearly every poll now says that Obama’s popularity and approval ratings remain at extraordinary levels. Just as important, he has displayed the capacity to persuade the public that his policies deserve support, as he did when he finally began to campaign on behalf of the stimulus last week. The latest Gallup survey shows that support for the stimulus rose markedly among Democrats and stabilized among both independents and Republicans as soon as he started speaking out forcefully.

Not only did the president win the debate over his bill, but he also rebutted the Republican argument for mostly tax cuts instead of spending, according to Gallup’s Feb. 9 poll. By 50 percent to 42 percent, most Americans believe that government spending will do more to spur economic growth than tax cuts — a stunning repudiation of conservative ideology. Although Republicans tend to prefer tax cuts by wide margins, Democrats remain convinced that spending works better and, ominously for the right, so do independents, by a margin of 50 percent to 36 percent.

The Republicans slapped themselves on the back for denying the president a single vote in the House of Representatives, but the basic fact is that they could not come close to sustaining a Senate filibuster against this bill. Underlying that reality is the emptiness of their fiscal rhetoric and the paucity of their ideas. In major states such as Florida and California, their own GOP governors have spoken out in favor of the stimulus because the party has no program beyond tax cuts for the wealthy.

So the approval ratings of the Republican Party and the congressional minority declined during this struggle, while the ratings of the Democrats and the congressional leadership improved, despite their uneven performance. Those numbers should bolster the determination of the president and his party to push ahead — and to push back when they meet obstruction, as they inevitably will.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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