Donna Brazile: The uniter is back
I was curious after the Democrats’ bitter loss in Massachusetts exactly which Barack Obama would show up to deliver his first State of the Union address. Would it be the impassioned motivator who, when accepting his party’s nomination, delivered the powerful “Yes We Can” speech? Or would it be the prudent realist who tried to dampen excessive expectations with his inaugural address?
Personally, I was hoping for a President Obama who displayed both passion and prudence — and I wasn’t disappointed. To those who answered his call of “yes-we-can” leadership with “no-you-can’t” obstructionism, he sought common ground with a warning: “I don’t quit.”
“(I)f the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then,” Obama noted, “the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”
In essence, Obama took the stunning upset election of Scott Brown to say to both his Democratic majority in Congress and an emboldened Republican leadership that it’s time to “reason together,” as President Lyndon Johnson liked to say. It also gave the president an opening as big as Carlsbad Cavern’s entrance to reset his national agenda and re-energize a demoralized and fractured Democratic Party — and he grabbed it.
We knew Obama, blessed with a gift of oratory few others possess, would be poised, polished and eloquent. What struck me most about his speech, however, was its refreshing honesty and absence of false optimism.
He displayed an admirable learning curve and reassuring grasp on reality by acknowledging his failures (“Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved”); reassured anxious voters that he is now focused on their No. 1 priority, the economy (“But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year”); and extended, once again, an olive branch to an opposition that remains hellbent on sitting on the sidelines (“This week, I’ll be addressing a meeting of the House Republicans”).
First, I’d like to say to any member of Congress who still doesn’t get it — it’s still the economy, stupid. Before people can afford to worry about what’s going on abroad, they need to first be secure with household bank balances. Obama recognizes that “jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” He’s right.
Second, this is a chance to make important and long-lasting reforms to Wall Street. The upside to this economic meltdown is that we can rebuild a stronger and more ethical Wall Street than the one that almost collapsed in 2008. This is a critical step to restoring voter confidence.
Third, focusing on the economy gives health care a break from being center stage. A critical win from both political and practical perspectives, Democrats cannot afford to abandon health reform. But we’re losing right now, and we need a break to regroup. The messaging has been off, and we need to rethink it. Can the Democrats reconcile their differences? Can the president persuade Republicans, who added some of the proposal’s key ingredients, to bite off pieces they can stomach?
Fourth, Congress must cut spending and reduce the deficit. I don’t know how they’re going to do that without getting some of my friends on the left up in arms, but it’s the task they face. I don’t envy them. Nevertheless, health care will never get through Congress if it looks like Democrats aren’t serious about curbing fiscal irresponsibility.
Finally, Obama must start to lead, thereby getting Congress out of the national spotlight. Sausage making is never a pretty process, and even if the end result is tasty, witnessing it can permanently turn your stomach. That’s the point we’re at with health care, that’s where we’ve been on the stimulus package, and that’s where we may be going with energy reform and other important issues.
As the president noted, “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.”
Washington is in full campaign mode. It’s inevitable in an election season that every issue and every proposal will be viewed through the political prism of who wins and who loses. This is regrettable since so much of what was accomplished in 2009, such as the credit card reform bill, directly benefited working people.
I’m encouraged by the leader who showed up Wednesday to deliver the State of the Union. We got Barack Obama, the uniter. We got the Barack Obama, the impassioned motivator and prudent realist. We got the leader we elected to lead the change that we can all believe in — Democrat, Republican and independent alike. It’s time we give our president and lawmakers some wiggle room to “reason together” in how to best deliver it.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.
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