State Of The Union

>> Thursday, January 28, 2010

It's something else we can blame Woodrow Wilson for: for more than a century, from the Jefferson Administration up until Wilson came into office, American Presidents sent Congress a letter every so often to satisfy Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution. Thanks to Wilson, we now have a tradition of the President talking to Congress, and it's debatable how informative these things are: I mean, one could (and maybe should) walk away from Article II thinking that the point of a State Of The Union address is to give Congress a status report and maybe throw in a few suggestions, not to make a freewheeling policy speech, which is what Presidents have done throughout my lifetime, at least.

Then again, how necessary would such a speech be at all these days? When the Constitution was written, it's not like the President could just bulk e-mail the Congress with a cover letter with attached PDFs covering budget, national defense, and whatever. The State Of The Union address, whether written or spoken, is something like wisdom teeth--obsolete evolutionary holdovers from our primitive ancestry, once-useful but now extraneous and sometimes painful, something you probably wouldn't put in on purpose if you were starting over from scratch.


So, the speech last night was a good one, but was there really any doubt of that? President Obama remains a likable personality, and generally a credit to his current profession: the speech was polished yet strangely conversational, at times informal but strong throughout. It reminded me, in some ways, of the kind of lecture my better law school professors could deliver: informed, serious (but not above the occasional bit of humor), well-prepared and yet slightly flexible, too. The President gives good speech.

And presentation aside, there were things to like about it: he insisted on healthcare reform, promised to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," chided the opposition while expressing an openness to suggestions, quietly criticized his own party for failing to lead strongly, accepted responsibility for communications failures (and we'll come back to that in a moment), promised a small business stimulus package, pointed out some problems with the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision that Congress needs to address, fixing the Veterans' Administration and outlined a promising reform of higher education access--not a bad agenda to set.

But, again, although mentioning "DADT" was a mild and pleasant surprise, there wasn't necessarily a lot of newness there, and my problems with the Obama Administration aren't with the Administration's agenda, but the Democrats' ability to implement any of it. Some of these matters are outside of the President's direct control, to be sure, though rather few of the things he addressed are under the President's direct control. But the biggest problems of the past year might be filed under "failure to lead" rather than "failure of vision": the Administration came in under a banner of change, much of which has stalled on the launchpad or been quietly dropped in spite of strong Congressional majorities, which in a representative democracy stand in for the will of the people--we do not have a referendum democracy or a direct-participation democracy, but a democracy in which the citizens choose people to represent the views of community majorities, meaning that a congressional majority stands in for the will of the People as a whole.

This brings up a matter I said I'd come back to: the President's acceptance of responsibility for failure to communicate, which predictably drew responses along the lines of this bit of incomprehensible gibberish from a former state governor. Considering that most of the public "objections" to healthcare reform are objections to nonissues like "death panels," mandatory carrier changes, and availability of public insurance to illegal immigrants, it's self-evident that the public-at-large isn't rejecting policies it understands; calling it a "failure to communicate" is actually a tactful way of acknowledging this, because while it's true the Obama Administration has fallen short in educating the public, the other side of the problem is that certain political opportunists (e.g. the previously-alluded-to former state governor) have been lying their lying little liar's asses off, resulting in the more-credulous segments of the public being a little misinformed (from all the lying).

But wait, there's more: even if the lying liars weren't actually telling lies, the wishes of the public would not be dispositive. I want to be a little careful in how I phrase that--my first formulation would have been, "What the public wants doesn't matter," but that's not exactly right. Go back to what I wrote about representative democracy a few paragraphs ago: in America, the public doesn't write (or pass) laws, the public elects people who do that, and then if we don't like the results we can elect somebody else. So the percentage of the public that favors healthcare reform is really only relevant during election years; now, naturally, we members of the public desire a certain amount of responsiveness from our elected representatives and want our voices to count. I was bitching about this the other day, so I'm trying to stay consistent. But the fact is also that our system was designed to negate mob rule; indeed, as originally designed, the whole point of the bicameral Congress was to have an unstable, mobbishly inclined body and a stable, elitist body that would have to effect compromises between what the public wanted and what its betters understood to be preferable (direct election of Senators under the XVIIth Amendment fucked that up; I dunno, seemed like a good idea at the time for some reason).

In other words, suppose just for a moment that the Palins and Boehners are right--that the public isn't on board for healthcare reform. There's a Constitutional argument that the correct response for the Congress and President is, "Screw off, we're passing it and if you don't like it, you can un-elect us in 2/6/4 years."

Sounds arrogant, right? Sometimes leadership does.

I don't mean to suggest that compromise and negotiation and using persuasion instead of force are undesirable--in general, I'd say they're preferable. But some people can't be negotiated with, and when negotiations fail it's time for somebody to take charge. We elect these people to govern, not to flail about in seas of poll numbers or to ask every single American if something's okay.

It's a fact of life that when government does what's inherent in the word itself, and governs, that people won't like everything that happens. You know, I'm not interested in buying missile systems and I'd rather beautify some parks with public sculpture than pay for yet another low-level drug addict's incarceration. But I have to accept that some of my tax dollars will be spent on something I don't like, or want, or even need. And during a Republican administration, I may have to suck it, a lot, until the tide (hopefully) turns and a more-progressive regime comes in and shifts the balance towards spending money on things I like, want, or need, whether it's cleaner air or better public education.

Of course, if the "more-progressive" administration fails to deliver, I reserve my right to vote for somebody else or not at all. But that's how the game works under the rules we've agreed to. If Republicans don't like it, they can move to Russia.

But perhaps I digress.

I'd like to say that the State Of The Union restored my faith or something--but I never lost faith in the President's ability to address the country like one reasonable adult talking to a nation of equally-reasonable adults. My shaken faith is in the ability of Democrats to achieve results. I'm not completely out of hope.

But I'm still waiting.


Nathan Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 7:08:00 PM EST  


I was actually trying to write something in a Palin-esque voice today, and lemme tell ya...that shit's hard. I won't go so far as to say I have some kind of new found respect for her, but Jeez, I couldn't come up with that stuff off the cuff if my life depended on it.

Jeri Friday, January 29, 2010 at 12:05:00 AM EST  

I'm not as hopeful as you - we feel pretty stuck to me. Maybe you'll be contagious, over time.

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