Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sammy the middle schooler

From the lede in Frank Rich’s column this morning in the New York Times, The State of the Union is Comatose:

HANDS down, the State of the Union’s big moment was Barack Obama’s direct hit on the delicate sensibilities of the Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. The president was right to blast the 5-to-4 decision giving corporate interests an even greater stranglehold over a government they already regard as a partially owned onshore subsidiary. How satisfying it was to watch him provoke Alito into a “You lie!” snit. Here was a fight we could believe in.

More satisfying, at least to Spot, would have been if Obama had handled it the same way that middle school teachers sometimes do when kids are whispering in class.

Stop and ask, “Sammy, do you have something you want to say to the whole class?”

“Um, no.”

“All right, then; please be quiet.”

An enormous breach of protocol, of course, but so is doing pantomime in the well of the House (where the Supremes sit, up front, along with the military brass) during the State of the Union address. The likelihood that Alito would have stood up and delivered a stirring defense of Citizens United is about zip (and without a microphone, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway), especially since Obama was describing the very real potential for foreign influence on elections in the wake of the decision.

Frank had some other great observations about the address and, well, the state of the union. Rich is a trenchant and colorful observer, and his entire column is very good, but here are just a couple of grafs:

In Obama’s speech, he kept circling back to a Senate where both parties are dysfunctional. The obstructionist Republicans, he observed, will say no to every single bill “just because they can.” But no less culpable are the Democrats, who maintain “the largest majority in decades” even after losing Teddy Kennedy’s seat — and yet would rather “run for the hills” than accomplish anything.

What does strong Senate leadership look like? That would be L.B.J. in the pre-Kennedy era. Operating with the narrowest of majorities and under an opposition president, he was able to transform a sleepy, seniority-hobbled, regionally polarized debating society into an often-progressive legislative factory. As Robert Caro tells the story in his book “Master of the Senate,” this Senate leader had determination, “a gift for grand strategy,” and a sixth sense for grabbing opportunities for action before they vanished for good. He could recognize “the key that might suddenly unlock votes that had seemed locked forever away” and turn it quickly. The horse trading with recalcitrant senators was often crude and cynical, but the job got done. L.B.J. knew how to reward — and how to punish.

* * *

Perhaps McCain was sneering [during the speech] at Obama because of the Beltway’s newest unquestioned cliché: one year after a new president takes office he is required to stop blaming his predecessor for the calamities left behind. Who dreamed up that canard — Alito? F.D.R. never followed it. In an October 1936 speech, nearly four years after Hoover, Roosevelt was still railing against the “hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government” he had inherited. He reminded unemployed and destitute radio listeners that there had been “nine crazy years at the ticker” and “nine mad years of mirage” followed by three long years of bread lines and despair. F.D.R. soon won re-election in the greatest landslide the country had seen.

Obama should turn up the heat on both the G.O.P’s record of fiscal recklessness and its mad-dog obstructionism. He should stop paying lip service to the fantasy that his Congressional opposition has serious ideas to contribute to the cleanup. Better still, he should publicize exactly what those “ideas” are.

In a departure from several of his other speeches during the first year of his term, Obama only used the term “bipartisan” twice. (Spot counted.) Republicans have demonstrated time and time again they have no interest in bipartisanship. “Bipartisanship” is just self flagellation at this point. Remember, while Tony Scalia may be an Opus Dei member; Barack Obama is not.

It is clear to Spot that FDR and Lyndon Johnson, and not Bill Clinton, who lost both houses of Congress in the midterms after his first election, show the way forward for Barack Obama.

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