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(Opinions, Observations, and Commentary)

Friday, September 9, 2011

In jobs speech, President Obama puts the people first

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The contrasts could not have been clearer. A day after eight GOP presidential hopefuls took the stage in Wednesday's Republican debate, President Obama had his turn to address the American people. Long story short, the President delivered twice the leadership of his GOP rivals in half the time. And in doing so, perhaps the President reminded America of what sets him apart from most others in Washington. In a world of political calculations and gamesmanship, the President still puts the people first.

While the GOP spent Wednesday night rehashing its talking points and constructing an alternate universe for a partisan crowd at the Reagan Presidential Library, President Obama spoke to America - Democrats, Republicans, and Independents - in the self-proclaimed "People's House" of Congress. It is a move that does not get enough credit in today's cynical political environment. This was not a "play it safe" kind of moment. Unlike those eight Republicans, the President did not speak in front of a friendly audience. Quite the contrary, speaking in the House of Representatives was more of an away game for a man who has seen Congress attempt to block his every move.

Far from a partisan crowd, the President practically stepped into the belly of the beast. The 2010 Elections still fresh in memory, Republican Tea-Party members ever so prominent, President Obama could have settled for the friendly confines of his Oval Office. But he did not. A speech of this magnitude for a problem this big could not be confined to the four walls of the White House. No, putting the people first required that the President speak in the "People's House."

The President could not rely on cheap applause from a room that was majority Republican. Indeed, certain lines dealing with tax cuts for the wealthy received outright derision from the Republican side of the aisle. Other proposals for matters such as infrastructure and labor rights were met with stone faces. But this speech wasn't for the suits in peanut gallery so much as it was a message for the millions of Americans watching on television. President Obama's message: Despite all of the craziness you see around me, I stand with you.

Nor was it sufficient for the President to toe his own party line . . . or perhaps, better put, "line in the sand." Surely some will protest that President Obama's speech was not the red meat, "base" fodder that progressive Democrats demanded. The President did not attempt to lay all of the blame at the Republicans feet (although it would have been warranted). Neither did President Obama use his prime-time appearance to present a wish-list of every Democratic platform that had absolutely no chance of passing Congress. However, in the spirit of leadership that makes this man exactly who he is, the President carved a path through pragmatic determinism that is all too lacking from our political officials.

Others would more correctly note that, despite its bipartisan appeal, there was plenty of red meat for the base to chew on. However, as suggested by some reactions, the "red meat" was not meant to define the speech. And probably by design. In the aftermath of the President's address, MSNBC's Chris Matthews marveled at the fact that President Obama talked infrastructure without really uttering the word "infrastructure." President Obama talked stimulus without falling prey to the word police of a media trained to see "stimulus" as a dirty word.

And still, President Obama succeeded in presenting a Democratic vision for the future that is likely more persuasive than had he pounded his fist and pointed fingers. The President stood up for workers rights, used many of the GOP's arguments against itself, and gave an impassioned defense for the role of government.

But still, President Obama defined the night by doing what so many regardless of party fail to do. He led.

The President did not fall back on the soundbite culture of a 24-hour news cycle. Certain critics from the Left demanded he "take it to the Republicans" or present a bill for the sake of politics alone. Instead, President Obama presented a bill that it seems he felt could actually get by Congress. And in addition to this welcomed pragmatism, President Obama vowed to take the American Jobs Act around the country to the American people. The Pyrrhic victory of tone over substance may be unavoidable. But rather than take cover behind the constant partisan back-and-forth, the President made it clear: He'll do what's necessary, but he'd rather spend his time working.

In other words . . . President Obama did NOT take the easy way out.

Oh, how easy it would have been to give a partisan speech, throw up his hands in disgust and say "See 'ya at the ballot box next November." But the President did not do that. Why? Well, in the President's own words from Thursday's speech. . .

"This past week, reporters have been asking, 'What will this speech mean for the President? What will it mean for Congress? How will it affect their polls, and the next election? But the millions of Americans who are watching right now, they don't care about politics. They have real life concerns. (emphasis added)


Some get it, many more do not. There is a time and place for politics. But, more importantly, there is a time and place for governance. Most politicians understand the former all too well. It is the latter where so many are lost. President Obama made it clear, he will campaign hard, but he will campaign with a purpose. The opportunity is there. Congress has a chance to accept the President's challenge to govern. The question is: Will they take it?

The fact is, we live in an environment with a 24-hour cable news cycle. We have to fill that time somehow. Too often, mainstream media chooses to fill that space with the hot air of partisan bickering. It perpetuates that space through false equivalency and petty controversies. This unhealthy mindset that politics is a game and "principle" trumps results, forgets the fact that real people's lives are at stake. It produces gridlock and feeds the cynicism that exists throughout our political discourse. Thankfully, we have a President that does not fall victim to this approach.

The issue is not whether President Obama will have to embark on a partisan campaign on behalf of the American people. The reality of an obstructionist GOP in a do-nothing Congress makes the President's campaign a near certainty.

But, stop for one moment to appreciate what transpired Thursday night. President Obama presented a strong and rational jobs plan that correctly anticipates the political realities of a divided Washington. Keeping with his pragmatic approach to leadership, the President will attempt to achieve what he can, when he can for the American people.

But frustration over the stalemate in our nation's capitol will only come to an end when we, the American voters, make the conscious decision to end the gridlock. It will come to an end when voters decidedly give a President enough votes in Congress to defeat the obstructionists. Not a moment sooner. That's the question for 2012: Who wants it?

But that's NOT the question now. The question for right now is simple: What can Washington do? It is not as sexy a question, but it is the question nonetheless. And fortunately we have a President who is willing to forsake the easy political points in his attempt to actually try and tackle that question.

We may look towards 2012. But, in the meantime? Well, in the meantime, we've got mouths to feed, mortgages to pay, and rent that's due. Bravado for a purpose, whether false or sincere, means nothing if the votes aren't there to pass it. Political pissing matches come and go, but the people continue to suffer.

Thankfully, our President understands this truth. Despite attacks from the Right AND Left, from figures with bigger mouths but lesser accomplishments, President Obama understands that the people come before politics.

As he said in his speech Thursday night,

"The next election is 14 months away. And the people who sent us here -- the people who hired us to work for them -- they don't have the luxury of waiting 14 months."

Translation: President Obama has decided that he will not waste your time. He chooses to work, instead.

That is admirable. Even more, that is exactly the kind of leadership we need as a country. Pardon, that is exactly the kind of leadership we have as a country. And perhaps voters will begin to realize this in time to turn their anger in the right direction as the spotlight shines brighter and brighter on those who choose to stand in the way of progress, and the lazy journalism that gives them cover. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the pundit class, this President - President Obama - is NOT your problem.

Consider that the next time you see a Republican obstruct progress on the grounds of "principle." Consider that the next time you hear a Democrat offer the moon without a plan (or the votes) to get there. The symbolic politics of the perpetual beltway shouting match is nothing new, and has yielded few tangible results.

This does not mean that we lower our sites from grander expectations, or bottle our passions. Even with this new jobs proposal, people will ask question. But it does mean that there is a value to that which is possible. And, in a world that cherishes the false bravado of career politicians who promise everything except that which they can actually deliver, maybe it is time we as a country begin to appreciate the sincere actions of modest politicians who work to get what they can. . . those politicians who put the people first.

You'd be surprised how far it can get you.




Video: Perspective Piece