State of dysfunction



So here we go again. The airwaves and dead trees and blogs are replete with partisan and punditized advice about What Obama Should Do. Forgive me for experiencing a deja vu.

This kind of advice spilled forth in abundance during the spring of '08, when Obama's presidential primary bid stalled in the Rustbelt, mostly because of the race issue and Jeremiah Wright; and again on the eve of the Democratic convention, when Democrats melted down in fear that Obama wasn't "connecting" with everyday folks. In both instances, however, Obama himself quelled the cacophony about What Obama Should Do by delivering highly effective, even visionary, speeches.

But those speeches occurred during a campaign, when words are the treasured coin of the realm. Governing is different. A big speech about governance has to get down to specifics. Honeyed rhetoric is less important than a blueprint for action. It's about navigating the treacherous crossroads where politics and policy collide.

Which brings us to tonight, when Obama will deliver his State of Dysfunction address.

What word better describes the current paralysis? There is no "Union," after all. Obama's liberal base is ticked off that he has proposed a partial spending freeze (which we'll hear more about tonight), and believes that such a freeze will chill progressivism and kill off comprehensive health care reform. If Obama hints tonight that he wants to shelve the latter, the base will go ballistic. Liberals are already steamed that Obama is proposing a freeze, whereas, during the '08 campaign debates with John McCain, he dismissed a freeze as tantamount to "using a hatchet where you need a scalpel."

Meanwhile, the centrist independents, who voted GOP in three recent elections (Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial, Massachusetts senatorial) have been ticked off about the growing federal deficit, so perhaps they'll be mollified by a partial spending freeze (or maybe they'll dismiss it as an empty gesture, since Obama is talking about relatively small trims). More importantly, unless Obama does hint tonight that he favors shelving comprehensive health care reform, he may risk losing even more of the angry middle.

And if he fails to give a clear signal either way on health reform (which is likely), he'll unnerve the liberals and the angry middle.

And then, of course, we have the Capitol Hill Republicans, whose entire agenda is to destroy Obama's presidency. At this point, it hardly matters what he proposes, because they're the party of Groucho Marx ("Your proposition may be good / But let's have one thing understood / Whatever it is, I'm against it / And even when you've changed it or condensed it/ I'm against it"). If Obama announced tonight that he was hoping to enact the entire Republican National Committee platform, the odds are high that the Senate GOP, with the help of co-President Scott Brown, would threaten another filibuster.

By the way, the latest bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reports that the Republicans get the most blame for the current dysfunction; 48 percent of Americans fault the congressional GOP, while 41 percent fault the Democrats. On the other hand, only 39 percent say they are confident that Obama has the right goals for the country, which is one reason why tonight he's expected to curry favor with middle-class families (new tax credits for child care, more help on student loan payments - the kind of small-ball stuff that Bill Clinton used to do when he was in trouble, the stuff that liberals used to dismiss as insufficient).

The bottom line is that Obama somehow has to lay out a roadmap that will attract his base as well as the angry middle. Although I'm stumped as to how he would do that. For instance, the liberal wing of his party would love to see him announce a second ambitious economic stimulus plan, which they see as essential to curing the recession and creating jobs, in the Keynesian tradition; but if he announced such a proposal (which he won't), the angry middle would probably see that as further evidence of runaway deficit spending.

And clearly, What Obama Should Do is address the public's concern about the Washington sclerosis; in the NBC-WSJ poll, 93 percent of Americans believe there’s too much partisan strife. No doubt, he will call upon the lawmakers to behave like adults. Good luck with that. Everyone is calling on Obama to lead, but a politically polarized and institutionally paralyzed Congress isn't likely to follow. George W. Bush used to talk every January about the need to foster "a spirit of goodwill and respect" and "the wisdom of working together," in his periodic attempts to "change the tone of Washington."

Which is why this annual presidential speech usually teaches us anew that words are cheap, and that blueprints for action, all too often, are ephemeral. It would be a pleasant surprise if Obama's ritual exercise proves to be the rare exception.