State of the Union
Above the Fold
Now, in the wake of the Massachusetts result, Congressional Democrats seem to be running for the hills instead of making every possible effort to pass a health care reform bill.
–FCP, January 22, 2010
To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.
–Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 28, 2010
There was quite a lot to admire in last night’s State of the Union speech–a combination of plain truths and worthy policy proposals. These were some of the highlights:
* The lobbyists are trying to kill [the financial reform bill passed by the House.] But we cannot let them win this fight.
* We still need health insurance reform
* From some on the right, I expect we’ll hear a different argument -– that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that’s what we did for eight years. That’s what helped us into this crisis [although that’s what created this crisis would have been stronger–and more accuate.]
* Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.
* With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests–including foreign corporations –to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.
* Let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years –- and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service to correct some of these problems.
* This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.
These were all admirable declarations–and none more so than the president’s reminder to the Senate Democrats that even after their defeat in Massachusetts, they still have their largest majority in decades.
Of course, Obama has never had a problem giving a fine speech.
The problem, so far, has been follow-up.
I always thought the fact that Obama was the product of the Chicago Democratic machine was one of the most appealing parts of his resume–because it made it plausible that this freshman Senator could be strong enough to become an effective president.
Confronted by a Republican minority which is reflexively committed to going for the jugular, what the Democrats have needed for years is a comparable toughness. If Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi can’t provide that, the White House somehow has to find a way to provide that missing backbone.
As Frank Rich pointed out last Sunday, in one of his most powerful columns, patricians like FDR and JFK never hesitated to battle their own class. Rich wrote that Obama desperately needed something like JFK’s U.S. Steel moment–the president’s broadside against the steel maker after its chairman decided to “break a White House-brokered labor-management contract agreement and raise the price of steel (but not wages).” Kennedy’s assault left reporters “literally gasping,” according to Dick Reeves, and U.S. Steel backed down two days later.
So populist rhetoric against the banks–“We all hated the bank bailout”–is fine as far as it goes. But what this administration needs more than anything else right now is proof that there will be serious consequences for anyone who derails its agenda. It needs actual results, on health care, and financial reform, and it needs them well before Washington’s cherry blossoms reach their peak at the beginning of April.
Up until now, the hallmark of Rahm Emanuel’s political management has been a terror of replicating the mistakes of the Clinton administration. That’s why Obama waited much too long to roll up his sleeves, and involve himself directly in the health care negotiations. And that is also why Obama’s campaign promise to repeal Clinton’s idiotic don’t ask, don’t tell policy for gays in the military remains unfulfilled twelve months after Obama took office–even though the political climate (and the poll numbers) are dramatically different in 2010 than they were in 1993.
Instead of reflexively avoiding Clinton’s mistakes, it’s time to emulate Lyndon Johnson’s mastery at manipulating the Congress. Rahm Emanuel played a big role in creating the large majorities the Democrats enjoy right now in both houses. Now it’s time to make them produce the kind of legislation we can all be proud of.
If that doesn’t happen soon, all the predictions of disaster for Democrats in the fall are certain to come true.