Sunday, January 31, 2010

The State of Our Union

For President Obama's first State of the Union address he was confident, competent, steady, smart, and relaxed. He acknowledged the charged partisan atmosphere, but still seemed to stand above it.

I admired the performance. I felt deflated afterwards.

Obama has to make a choice.

He can rally his side and lead his legislative majority to enact his agenda. This is the partisan path which will lead to likely legislative accomplishment but will come with even more acrimony.

Or Obama can continue to push for compromise and bipartisan solutions. This is the high road. Ultimately, breaking the culture of politics-as-bloodsport is the best bet for the future of this country. But Obama can't travel this road alone.

After the year we've had I, and many others, have urged Obama to take the partisan path, to stand up for his party, to stand against the entrenched and obstinate opposition-- to get it done.

In his State of the Union address the president took the bipartisan path.

During his speech the president did not promise to steamroll the opposition. He did not commit to passing health care reform, financial reform, and a new jobs program by any means necessary. He defended his record and endorsed his priorities. He called for new ideas, shared solutions, and a common purpose. Instead of a call to arms it was a call for disarmament. On Wednesday, in the face of a loud and heartfelt plea from the left, and vitriol and disdain from the right, Obama chose the center road.

Something interesting happened on Friday.

Obama was invited to the House Republican Retreat in Baltimore. He came to speak to the Republican members of the House of Representatives and spent some time answering their questions. The event was extraordinary. The Republicans were sincere and respectful even as they let fly with their questions, proposals, and complaints. The president held his ground and explained his positions. It was a real and substantive debate.

As a supporter of the president, it was refreshing to see him stand up to the opposition and confront them directly. And coming from the House Republicans I heard a clear sense of frustration. They do feel like their proposals are not getting a fair hearing. They did not sound content being the party of "no". They do want to offer solutions. Obama acknowledged their frustration. He seemed well-informed about their proposals. He seemed ready to hear more.

I don't know where we go from here. I don't know if this president can achieve legislative success or forge real bipartisanship. We might get both. Or neither. What is clear is that President Obama is committed to staying on the high road, despite the obvious off-ramp.

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