In my last article, I made the following observation regarding the challenges President Obama faced on the eve of his Wednesday evening State of the Union address: "The American people, well-trained in the art of short-term memory loss, have come to the conclusion that everything happening now is Obama's fault, and the polls reflect this without dispute. One speech on Wednesday night won't fix all that ails us, but if Mr. Obama doesn't hit precisely the right notes in the delivery, his second year could come to make his first year seem like a Cape Cod clambake by comparison."
Well, let's see.
On Wednesday night, Mr. Obama delivered that address
in fine style, openly excoriating the GOP and the justices of the
Supreme Court for their recent bad behavior, and concluded with a
populist clarion call that very nearly lifted the dome off the Capitol
building. On Thursday, he traveled to Florida and announced the
inception of a high-speed rail program that would provide new jobs
along the entire length of the eastern seaboard. On Friday, Mr. Obama presented himself
before a collection of some 140 Republican members of Congress and, not
to put too fine a point on it, bounced them individually and
collectively off all four walls in the room.
It did indeed.
As the event unfolded, it was impossible to avoid comparisons to the British custom known as Prime Minister's Questions. Every Wednesday in the United Kingdom, the British prime minister sits in the House of Commons and answers any and all questions from members of Parliament for 30 minutes. Several other countries - Canada, Ireland, Scotland, India, Australia and New Zealand most prominently - carry on a similar tradition, but the United States has never enjoyed such an enlightening institution. The press can question a president at press conferences and on the Sunday shows, but members of Congress, especially members of the opposition party, have never been given an opportunity to do so. Until now.
One by one, Republican members of Congress stood before Mr. Obama and took their best shots. One by one, he sent them packing with a smile on his face and the facts on his side. One of the most revealing exchanges took place when GOP Congressman Mike Pence (R-Indiana) tried to take the president to task for refusing to support an across-the-board tax cut, and for the massive cascade of job losses that hit the nation last winter. Mr. Obama reminded Pence that the job losses he spoke of took place before he took office, and before any of his programs had been implemented. He excoriated Pence and a number of his Republican brethren for attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies celebrating programs created by the stimulus package they had voted against. He concluded by telling Pence, "I'm going to want to take a look at your math," because Pence's support for massive tax cuts, a spending freeze and a balanced budget all at the same time basically makes no sense whatsoever.
Perhaps, the most revealing aspect of this event came after the deal had gone down. The Republicans in that room were made to look so foolish in the face of this president that a number of them later stated bluntly that it was a mistake to have allowed cameras into the room. Fox News saw how badly those GOP Congress people were being thrashed and cut away from their broadcast of the event a full 20 minutes before it was over, choosing instead to flood their studio with critics of Obama to try and mitigate the damage.
And that, in a nutshell, is the present reality of this Republican Party. When allowed to freely bloviate into the yawning void of modern political journalism, the GOP can score points easily. They are the undisputed world heavyweight champions of the sound bite stab below the fifth rib, and their talents in this regard are fortified by their uncanny ability to have no fealty to the truth whatsoever. When confronted by someone armed to the teeth with the facts, someone who can articulate those facts clearly and completely in front of a battery of cameras broadcasting his words to a national audience on every network, they folded like wet napkins.
In the aftermath of last Friday's presidential deconstruction of his political opposition, a number of commentators offered the same observation: so much for this president's alleged addiction to the teleprompter. Forget about prepared speeches, opined Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. Have this president deliver a few minutes of prepared remarks, and then say, "Any questions?" and let the chips fall where they may. The president's State of the Union address was finely crafted and perfectly delivered, his remarks in Florida the following day equally so, but neither could hold a candle to the off-the-cuff display of verbal pyrotechnics that so singed the follicles of 140 Republicans in that room on Friday.
Mr. Obama's three-day verbal tour-de-force was, to no small degree, exactly what a great portion of the American people had been waiting to see and hear from this president. Nowhere in evidence was the seeming vacillator, the craven seeker of nonexistent bipartisanship, the hat-in-hand beggar or the quiet punching bag we have seen all too much of during the last year. Since his inauguration, Mr. Obama has mostly been sitting back while wild-eyed GOP agitators rained blows upon him, his Democratic Congressional allies and every single one of his proposed programs. He's not an American citizen; he wants to kill grandma; he's a socialist, a terrorist, a despot - it went on and on, and became so effective that it pretty much shattered Obama's signature health care reform initiative.
The American people became savagely frustrated with his seeming complacency, so much so that the accusations made by the GOP began to take hold, no matter how perfectly stupid they were, until an administration elected with a massive plurality and with significant majorities in both houses of Congress found itself playing defense on virtually every front and losing ground everywhere. That guy got stuffed in a bottle and sent out with the tide, apparently, replaced at the end of last week by an Obama who was throwing haymakers and laying people out as he smiled, and smiled and smiled.
And so what, right? We all had an opportunity to enjoy what was in the end nothing more than a refreshing, yet ultimately hollow, piece of American political theater. Nobody can dispute the oratorical and rhetorical prowess of President Obama, and those who forgot this and sought to roll him on Friday found this out to their very public woe. But it was all just words, and nothing more. The president finally pushed back, and did so with ruthless and highly entertaining efficiency, but if he does not follow up on this bravura performance with actual deeds and effective action, that Cape Cod clambake will be over before it started.
We shall see.