The overall tenor here is that Rich wants Obama to get more active and mean. I agree at least in the sense that he has to get out there and mix it up with the common folk...to bring some clarity and sensibility to the polarized insanity that is passing for political dialogue these days.
The State of the Union Is Comatose
by Frank Rich
Hands down, the State of the Union's big moment was Barack Obama's direct hit on the delicate sensibilities of the Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. The president was right to blast the 5-to-4 decision giving corporate interests an even greater stranglehold over a government they already regard as a partially owned onshore subsidiary. How satisfying it was to watch him provoke Alito into a "You lie!" snit. Here was a fight we could believe in.
There was more to admire in Obama's performance as well. He did not retreat into the bite-size initiatives -- V-chips, school uniforms -- embraced by an emasculated Bill Clinton after his midterm pummeling of 1994. The president's big original goals -- health care, economic recovery, financial reform -- remained nominally intact, as did his sense of humor. In a rhetorical touch William Safire would have relished, Obama had the wit to rush the ritualistic "our union is strong" so it would not prompt the usual jingoistic ovation.
Good thing, too, since our union is not strong. It is paralyzed. Many Americans were more eagerly anticipating Steve Jobs's address in San Francisco on Wednesday morning than the president's that night because they have far more confidence in Apple than Washington to produce concrete change. One year into Obama's term we still don't know whether he has what it takes to get American governance functioning again. But we do know that no speech can do the job. The president must act. Only body blows to the legislative branch can move the country forward.
The historian Alan Brinkley has observed that we will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress -- and therefore government as a whole -- has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education. The gridlock isn't only a function of polarized politics and special interests. There's also been a gaping leadership deficit.
In Obama's speech, he kept circling back to a Senate where both parties are dysfunctional. The obstructionist Republicans, he observed, will say no to every single bill "just because they can." But no less culpable are the Democrats, who maintain "the largest majority in decades" even after losing Teddy Kennedy's seat -- and yet would rather "run for the hills" than accomplish anything.
What does strong Senate leadership look like? That would be L.B.J. in the pre-Kennedy era. Operating with the narrowest of majorities and under an opposition president, he was able to transform a sleepy, seniority-hobbled, regionally polarized debating society into an often-progressive legislative factory. As Robert Caro tells the story in his book "Master of the Senate," this Senate leader had determination, "a gift for grand strategy," and a sixth sense for grabbing opportunities for action before they vanished for good. He could recognize "the key that might suddenly unlock votes that had seemed locked forever away" and turn it quickly. The horse trading with recalcitrant senators was often crude and cynical, but the job got done. L.B.J. knew how to reward -- and how to punish.