Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Big Picture and the Strike React to the President's Address

The Big Picture: 1. Perhaps the clearest image of the night was the stunning contrast between the strength of the Democratic Party and the weakness of the Republican Party. Obama was pitch-perfect in his delivery of the speech, he looked great on the dais, framed by the exuberance of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, unmistakable proof that the Democrats control the government. He laid out a bold liberal agenda that fulfills the lifelong dream of Democrats even as it speaks to the most pressing concerns of the vast majority of the country. In contrast, the Republicans looked petty, weak, and frankly irrelevant. It was pathetic how they booed Obama for saying there were no earmarks in the stimulus bill, and refused to applaud for cutting taxes for 95% of Americans and for having an auto industry in America. Some conservative reactions to the speech were ludicrous: Michelle Malkin blogged "zzzzzz" and Republican House leader John Boehner said "I could have given the same speech." Mmmkay. Finally, Governor Bobby Jindal's response speech was frankly laughable. Most conservatives have derided it. The Picturette called him "creepy" and asked the question we were probably all asking, "Why is he talking like that?" As an immigrant herself, she was particularly dismissive of Jindal's absurdly corny, quite-possibly-made-up story of his dad in the grocery store saying "Americans can do anything!" Speak to us like adults. And he fit right into the Bizarro World framework of dismissing government without explanation or alternative, assuming his ideology is so obvious and popular he doesn't need to persuade anybody. It's very funny how the Republicans think they can counter the epochal, once-in-a-lifetime figure of President Obama with the two dark-skinned faces in their party, Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal, and both have looked ridiculous in comparison, as if they were trying to be mocked.

2. Obama's eloquence, confidence, boldness, and political instincts - the demonstration that he "got it" - was extraordinarily reassuring. His speech last night reaffirmed why we elected Obama, why we elected a Democrat, and really why we choose to have a government at all. Jindal apparently thinks most people still agree with Reagan that "government isn't the solution, it's the problem," but Obama proved that we have a government and a President precisely for this moment: to rally the entire nation to deal with a crisis. Imagine if we were facing these problems all on our own, and there was nobody who could bring people together. Even though I follow politics closely enough that there wasn't anything really new about the speech, the image of him up there, addressing the nation, truly leading in a way I have not seen in my lifetime, was deeply inspiring.

3. However, I wish Obama's programs for economic recovery matched the boldness of his rhetoric and were worthy of the crisis we face and the man we have entrusted to solve that crisis. The stimulus, housing plan, and banking plan sound like exactly what we need and what the country is demanding, but in reality so far they are much too timid, far too responsive to conventional wisdom and not suited to the urgency of the situation and the breadth and depth of the nation's support for Obama. Obama and his advisers need to immediately realize that the political situation allows them to be much bolder, and the serious of the economic crisis demands it.

The Strike: Last night, America saw its leader focused, sincere and determined to solve problems. What we heard last night was a speech a lot of us have been waiting for going back several years. In the dark days of the Bush administration, Democrats in the House chamber would reluctantly stand and cheer as the President made the case for unjust wars and unwise tax cuts. We cringed at the thought of any of the proposals be coming law. I remember the pit in my stomach when the President in 2005 talked about the need to privatize Social Security, and all our side could muster was a few jeers from weakened minority. This time, I not only believed so strongly in what Obama was saying, but I could feel the hopeful energy from the chamber. Seeing Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden jump to their feet in applause reminded me that these long-time liberal stalwarts are finally seeing the day when the government tackles these problems. The President spoke about three main domestic priorities: health care, energy and education. In doing so, he told us that the financial crisis cannot be an impediment to reform in these areas, but must be an impetus to act. He also made some unequivocal statements that gave me a Chris Matthews-like “thrill up my leg,” like when he said that America will strive to have the highest rate of college graduation by 2020, that we will enact health care reform this year, that the United States does not torture and that we will end the War in Iraq.

Contrast the President’s radiant energy, inspiring words and bold leadership with the response from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. I won’t even get into the delivery which made John McCain’s green screen “That’s not change we can believe in” speech last June look like John F. Kennedy. It was the substance that not only annoyed me personally, but was so inadequate for the times. This speech could have been written for Goldwater in ’64 or Reagan in ’81. Its main theme of utter mockery of government rings so hallow right now for a number reasons, not the least of which that taxpayers are paying billions, rightfully, to help Louisiana recover from Hurricane Katrina. Jindal’s snide remark about how he can’t have trust in government after living through the hurricane was especially absurd, as if the utter carelessness and incompetence of the previous administration should somehow persuade us to do LESS for struggling people. Also criticizing individual items in the stimulus bill was just so bush league. The President of the United States has taken bold action in the face of unprecedented challenges, and you are trying to score a one liner? My guess is that Jindal’s speech was written by Republican consultants (who themselves have consulted Rush Limbaugh) who are convinced that the party must return to its “small government principles” and rail against the excess of government. What Jindal and the Congressional Republicans seem to be missing is that the era of small-government, free market fetishism has been repudiated

As for the President, the substance of the proposals are still being developed, and will surely be criticized from the right and the left. Some, like the esteemed Big Picture, are understandably worried that strong words are not translating into bold enough solutions. The Paul Krugmans of the world will warn us that Obama’s stimulus is too small, that his banking plan is too timid, and that his housing proposal is watered down. They may be, but the President’s task consists of so much more than coming up with perfect policy. It’s to restore trust and confidence in the government, and to galvanize the country around the moral cause of helping one another in a spirit of common purpose.

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