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SOTU plus 66
It was the other appearance that deserved attention

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
January 31, 2010

Usually, in a week when the President gives the State of the Union Address, that's the political high point of the week.

And it was a good speech. One reason I didn't write on it that night as I normally do is that my copy of Windows Vista took damage that day and I had to rebuild it in a hurry in order to get already-delayed work done following a 8-day power blackout. I'm in the mountains. The weather is sometimes...interesting.

It wasn't as easy to write about as Bush's speeches were. Obama didn't say anything blatantly idiotic, he didn't fluff any lines, and he actually knew what he was talking about. That's a huge difference right there. I might disagree with Obama on Afghanistan. I might (and do) feel that he should have pushed harder on health care reform. And until he addresses the jobs issue, his work on the economy is of little use to those of us who actually create that economy.

But he's not ignorant, he's not arrogant, he doesn't strut, he admits error, and he knows his job about as well as any mortal can know that job.

Unlike Bush, he's neither a fool nor a liar, and I believe he actually has the welfare of the country at heart. He's not perfect, but he's a vast improvement.

The real star of the speech was the Republicans, As viewer reaction to the speech hit an astounding 83% positive, Republicans sat on their hands in stony silence, refusing to applaud not just the gimmes like “The Union is STRONG!”, but even aspects of their own ideology, such as the tax cuts that made up part of the Stimulus package. It showed the country that once and for all, they would sooner die than appear to be willing to reconcile with Obama in any way. If they keep it up, they will get their wish.

Obama knew it, too. He warned the Republicans that "Just saying 'no' to everything may be good short term politics but it's not leadership." The Republicans didn't even cheer when Obama warned the Democrats, "We have largest majority in decades and people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."

It was eerie. Many of the Republicans have swallowed the Faux News / Rush Limbaugh credo that any form of negotiation or reaching out is a weakness, and that they must never appear to be willing to accept anything from Obama beyond his total surrender.

Sir Winston Churchill could have told them a thing or two about that. When it is Adolf Hitler and the Nazi War machine, such bulldog determination is perfect, and ideal for the situation. But after the war, when the “foe” was just Clement Attlee and the Labour Party, and the world crisis just the inevitable disintegration of the British Empire, unrelenting defiance merely made for a very mediocre Prime Minister. It didn't work because it was a situation that required negotiation, not total war.

The Republicans have been trying to pretend that Obama is the enemy, and as Obama himself noted, it's an approach that has boxed them into a corner. When they've reached the point where they can't even applaud Mom, apple pie and baseball because it risks making them look like they agree with Obama on something, that means they are, yeah and verily, pretty well self-boxed.

But what took the spotlight off the SOTU and shone it in more a more brilliant light occurred the next day, when Obama met with the Republican caucus.

The Republicans invited him. I'm sure it was meant at nothing more than a piece of political grandstanding, a non-event they could use to tell their supporters, “Look, we invited this guy to come and listen to our ideas and explain his own ideas to us, and he refused. See what a rotten president he is?

Never mind that no president had ever responded to such a summoning in post-civil-war history. That rotten Obama! He doesn't want to talk to anyone!

Except, and no doubt to the GOP's amazement, he accepted the invite.

And brought television cameras along.

The result was a form of high-end political theatre, the likes of which Americans haven't seen outside of “The West Wing” in decades. The “minute meeting”, which went 66 minutes, was devoted almost entirely to discussions of policy. The video can be viewed here, at MSNBC:[http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/35152390#35152390] Don't bother looking for Faux coverage—they cut away about half way through. Yes, the Republicans did that badly in it.

Republicans came armed with their talking points. One, for example, was that Obama wouldn't even admit they had elements they proposed for the health plan. Obama proved that false by noting amendments that were adopted into either the House or Senate plans that came from Republicans, noting the elements of the plan and who the authors were. When asked why he didn't acknowledge all of them, he noted that he had read all of them, and that some of them simply would not work. All it would take, he declared for the silent Republicans, would be assurances from any reputable economist that such plans would cover people and save money, otherwise such promises were nothing more than political boilerplate.

He noted that he adopted GOP elements in the Stimulus package for tax cuts, and when one Republican congressman sneered that they were “boutique tax cuts” Obama quietly noted that they applied to 95% of working people in the country. It's a good example of how out-of-touch Republicans really are when banks must be protected from taxes on huge bonuses (made possible by tax dollars) because that would hurt people, but a tax break for working people is a “boutique tax cut”.

His most effective moment came when he talked about how demonizing opponents made it incomprehensible to people when politicians worked with those same opponents. He was careful to note that Democrats were sometimes guilty of that as well.

I've heard people suggest that perhaps Congress could get things done if the Republicans and Democrats met at different times. And no, it's not the clearest thinking I've ever encountered, but it shows that for people who pay scant attention to politics, the possibility of rapprochement seems incongruous with the sabre-rattling and demonization they normally see in the sound bites.

Obama didn't go in and unload on the Republicans. He probably would have lost a lot of leadership credibility if he had. Instead he was friendly, cordial, non-confrontational, but firm. Some of the Congressmen, being political animals, couldn't resist turning questions into a speech filled with talking points. At one point Obama, with a chuckle, said, “I know there's a question in there somewhere, because you're making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with,”

Obama destroyed two of the GOP's favorite memes in those 66 minutes. He showed that he in fact, is not an ideologue. (Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee said as much two days later on Faux News, and was promptly upbraided by Charles Krauthammer for deviating from party truespeak. If anyone knows an ideologue when he sees one, it's Charles Krauthammer. Well, the man has to shave, right?)

One of the more interesting moments came when the issue of the Line Item Veto was raised. Obama noted there probably hasn't been a president who didn't yearn for it, since like all presidents, he hates signing bills that are urgent to the national needs but are loaded up with earmarks, poison pills, and the like. But curiously, he didn't agree with the Republicans that such a presidential power should be striven for.

That makes sense. The man, after all, is a Constitutional scholar, and is doubtlessly aware of the near-absolute power the LIV would give to the executive. It would basically signal a surrender of the purse strings from Congress to the President, and the country would not benefit from it. Imagine such a power in the hands of an irresponsible idiot such as George W. Bush. At least in Congress, the irresponsible idiots tend to cancel each other out.

Given how bad the previous two weeks were, with the defeat of health care, the SC ruling that basically gave corporations an unlimited voice in American elections, and the Massachusetts election, the week was a break for Obama, and gave the rest of us a chance to catch our breaths and rekindle hope, knowing that even if we don't always agree with him, at least there's a grown up in the White House.

Posted: February 5, 2010

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