Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

State of the Union

Tim Sherratt


January 29, 2010

In his State of the Union address, President Obama defended his first year in office, while rearranging the priorities in his legislative program. Jobs and the economy moved to the top, energy, education and healthcare anchored the middle of the address, with national security bringing up the rear.

How did the President fare? Only time will tell if the rearrangement assuaged the populist anger exemplified  in the remarkable upset victory by Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate election.

The President changed his priorities without altering his commitments. Jobs and the economy may have displaced healthcare reform, but Mr. Obama insisted that he has not discarded such reform. Instead, he stressed the connection to economic health through the long-term stability and cost containment comprehensive reform can achieve, and urged Congress to complete the work that remains. His suggested formula for getting over the last mile:  bipartisanship. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which cites President Clinton’s move to the center after the 1994 elections, this is almost certainly a mistake.

American politics, the President conceded, contain deep philosophical disagreements over the proper scope of government authority. Issues caught between these ideological poles cannot be translated into policy through bipartisan pleas alone. They require disciplined partisanship at a minimum, with large majorities as a desideratum.

The American political process has been short on disciplined partisanship for many decades. Those who achieve it, like Speaker Gingrich in the 1990s, do not wield it for long. Members of Congress put constituency cultivation ahead of partisanship—the incentives work that way. And the nation’s populist instincts make partisan loyalty a term of reproach, the despised opposite of a vaunted independence.

If Scott Brown’s truck formed the populist backdrop to the President’s address this week, the President himself occupied the driver’s seat one short year ago. Wall Street and obscene bonuses focused the people’s anger then. But the protracted debates over healthcare saw those sentiments redirected to their more familiar target—government itself.

The President appears to have come only slowly to this realization. However much he sought to protect Main Street from Wall Street, Mr. Obama and his administration were most visible, and therefore most responsible, in voters’ eyes. Filter that perception of responsibility through the lens of a political culture already skeptical of government and the unsightly deal-making required to pass the House and Senate healthcare bills only reinforced suspicion of motives and potential outcomes.

At his core, is the President more policy wonk than politician, eloquent in the bully pulpit but not hard-nosed enough to force his opponents to show their hand? The policy wonk wants agreement. The politician wants results and takes the risks needed to get them. What President Obama could have done is subject Senate Republicans to public scrutiny. He could have called their bluff and dared them to filibuster. A couple of weeks in that spotlight would doubtless have revealed cracks in their party unity while encouraging the Democrats to close ranks. Only under conditions like these are bipartisan negotiations likely to bear fruit. (One recalls the dramatic budget showdown of 1995 between the Republicans under Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton.)

When he juxtaposed the moral urgency of healthcare reform to its political inexpediency, President Obama was at his best. The moral imperative would have justified laying down the gauntlet, but the President’s political instincts, or lack of them, seem not to allow him such a gambit. He settled instead for challenging the G.O.P. to see in their enlarged Senate minority a shared responsibility for governing. It probably won’t be enough.

— Timothy Sherratt, Professor of Political Studies
     Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”