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Commentary: Obama should use State of the Union to redefine his presidency

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 26, 2010 - The State of the Union Address provides President Barack Obama the chance to use the special resources of the presidency and his unique gifts to reclaim the political initiative.

The current Democratic dismay traces largely to the outcome of the Massachusetts Senate race and to the success the Republicans have had in defining Obama's first year in office. Yet the Massachusetts disaster was due largely to the indifferent and incompetent race Attorney General Martha Coakley ran. Obama's definitional problem can also be remedied, and the State of the Union provides the occasion for that fix.

Like all presidents, Obama made mistakes during his first year in office but they were "good" mistakes.

  • He entered office facing the greatest mess of any president since Franklin Roosevelt or perhaps Lincoln.
  • He embarked on an ambitious effort to solve problems by devoting extensive time to decision-making. He sought to master the issues he addressed and consulted widely in search of solutions.
  • He believed Congress should legislate, and he allowed legislative leaders to shape health reform legislation.
  • He believed in bipartisanship and reached out to the opposite party to an extent unprecedented in modern times.

In the process, others defined his activities. Republicans, admitting that their priority was Obama's failure, decided, essentially uniformly, to oppose Obama rather than to help solve problems. Senate Republicans used the filibuster even on routine measures without apparent political cost. Rather than engage in "the dance of legislation," they simply tried to stop the music.
The leading Republican voices attacked Obama from day one with a vitriol no modern first year president has faced. Think Cheney, Palin, Limbaugh. Some Democratic legislators handed them material through unseemly deal-making.

The State of the Union provides Obama the chance to reclaim the right to define his presidency. The presidency provides, as Theodore Roosevelt said, "a bully pulpit" and rarely more so than the State of the Union. And no contemporary figure, and few modern presidents, can articulate basic American ideals in the compelling way Obama can.

Wednesday night's speech gives Obama the chance to recount his accomplishments and articulate his commitments and show how they are targeted to jump start the economy, to help the middle class and those at risk and to address the other problems facing the nation.

Obama must show that he identifies with the problems of Main Street Americans and that he is committed to championing programs to spark the economy, to provide greater equity and opportunity, to restore accountability of government and business. Obama's challenge is to blend the aura of the presidency with the ardor of the campaign trail where he effectively communicated his identification with the people and the vision of spreading the American dream.

Obama needs to follow the State of the Union with town hall meetings around the country where he defends what he has done and what he is attempting and strengthens his link to the American people. Presidential success pivots on leadership as well as decision-making. To lead, Obama must educate the public to mobilize the support he needs to achieve his objectives.

Obama also needs to set the stage to call attention to the troubling conduct of the Republican Party. It has resolutely refused to participate in solving the mammoth problems that developed during the Bush-Cheney years, during most of which time Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. After the 2000 election, which was resolved in the Supreme Court and which initially left the Senate evenly divided, President Bush and especially Vice President Cheney rejected any suggestion of incorporating Democratic ideas and insisted that they would govern according to their campaign agenda.

Today, however, much discussion accepts as reality that the Senate can never act without 60 votes. Whatever justification the filibuster has, if any, is as an extraordinary device, not as the way business should routinely be done. It's time the media and public held the Republican Party accountable for creating gridlock, not government. Obama must make clear that he has been trying to govern while the Republicans have been playing partisan games.

If Obama restores a sense of confidence in his agenda, the Republicans will again confront the reality of their situation. The mess developed on their watch. They have not articulated an alternative program to address it. And they lack compelling leaders (Cheney? McCain? Palin?) to provide an alternative to Obama.

The State of the Union and the days that follow provide President Obama the opportunity to draw that contrast, to reclaim the political initiative, and to reshape a political environment in which our governmental institutions move toward solving problems not playing for partisan gain.

Joel K. Goldstein writes regularly on the presidency.

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