Better Late Than Never

I would like to think President Obama read my reactions to his State of the Union Address, but I won’t delude myself. And yet, it seems almost possible.1

I finally got around to watching his Q&A session with House Republicans. I hadn’t given it primacy because from my pundit reading I had gotten only four things:

  1. There really was no reason for things like this to be televised.
  2. The President “won” the event.
  3. The President’s only gaffe was using the wrong name for the congressman from Texas.
  4. The Republicans made a tactical error by giving the President the primary microphone, allowing him to outyell them, in effect, and still look good. And, as always, they were stupid.

In other words, nothing to see here.2

I’m glad I disregarded their gloss.

The event was a primer on American politics. The President has frequently spoken over the last two years–with little or no effect on Republicans, Democrats, his administration or, indeed, himself–about the need to move beyond political posturing. In this event, he gave that argument a test case.

First, he tried to have an honest debate. He refused to be cajoled into spewing partisan talking points and, instead, used fact, truth and open conversation as more than campaign slogans. He restated his desire not to “relitigate the past” and acted accordingly. He pointed out factual inaccuracies, but left room for policy differences.

Second, he wouldn’t let the conversation be squeezed into pre-defined molds. He mashed together taxes, health care, jobs and deficits so much they almost seemed inter-related. Apparently he forgot politicians only change topics to avoid difficult questions, not to worry about some bigger picture.

Third, he dropped the ‘if clause’. Two nights earlier, he’d told Republicans if they demand a supermajority vote on all action, “then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well” (emphasis mine). At the Q&A, he treated them as if they had a responsibility to govern because they had been elected, and he attempted to engage them accordingly.

Perhaps my favorite moment of the night was the President’s response to the final question. A former Illinois state senate colleague had engaged the President relatively congenially, providing too accommodating a finish for what Republicans hoped would be a clash of prepared talking points, so the congressman from Texas stepped up with his list of misleading grievances and fired off a closing missive. The President smilingly but clearly questioned the rant’s divisive intent, corrected the false claims, and provided a concrete example of how it could have been done. Diplomacy made politics looked stupid.

All this is not to say political problems are over. One freshman congressman notably pointed out that for all the President’s talk of engagement, the congressional Democrats were extending a hand only to stiff-arm Republicans. The rest of the Republican speakers spent their time posturing, posing and generally ignoring his calls for honest conversation (after all, they’d invited him there to make their points, not to get their questions answered). And, honestly, the President was breaking new ground by making his bipartisan rhetoric seem realistic. Change I can believe in? I’m not sure. But it at least gave me hope.

I finished my SOTU notes pointing out, “We’d be a lot better off if he could inspire himself to act in a way that might accomplish his vision [of politics that are generous and participatory].” We’re a lot better off after this Q&A.

  1. He even referred to the health insurance reform bill. I mean, really.
  2. I found it interesting that President Obama had predicted the relative silence of the media, in effect daring them to report his engagement of political adversaries. I should not have had to watch this to find out that President Obama likes Paul Ryan and his family–unless it’s politically detrimental to the congressman, of course.