Just as writers need to write for readers, presidents need to talk to the people. Last night, for the most part, Barack Obama missed his chance to do so.
Oh, during his first State of the Union address, he looked and sounded presidential. He was calm, poised, articulate, unflappable, smiling. He put jobs and the economy in the forefront of the coming year. He talked of the mess he had inherited, the successes he’d had, the work that remained to be done.
What he didn’t do is talk to viewers sitting on their living room couches. What he didn’t do is to linger long enough on their struggles, to show them he cared, to reach out to them in a way that let them knew, in the language and theater of Bill Clinton, that he felt their pain. Instead, he put on a game smile and chided Republicans when they didn’t applaud his lines extolling the tax cuts he’d given the vast majority of Americans.
Barack Obama played to the wrong audience last night, not the public watching in their homes, but the powerful massed in the hall. He joshed with the old boys (and boys and old they are). But I doubt the country was much taken with the pomp or the circumstances.
It’s old news that some who voted for the president are disillusioned. Plenty more are in economic pain. They want to know he understands it; that he is unswervingly committed to healing it. Laundry lists of proposals and achievements make bad Band-Aids on such occasions.
Who knows. Maybe the second half of the president’s speech was great (he did have those nice lines reminding viewers that he never said change would come easily). By then I’d literally fallen asleep in my chair, bored by the litany of programs Obama was marching through. He didn’t stir my soul; he didn’t chip away my growing cynicism.
And I wanted him to, badly. I consider the Republican opposition in this country absolutely dreadful. The president is right. This is the party of no. It can be as vicious as Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in his burn-and-pillage march through the South to the sea, willing to destroy all in its path to assure victory. That’s why appealing to the Republican Party for bipartisanship is a waste of time.
Congressional Democrats, for their part, have proven themselves to be the undisciplined, wobbly-kneed, nervous nellies they’re frequently cast to be. They control both houses by substantial margins but are paralyzed by the next election. They, like the Republicans, forgot decades ago that they’re in Washington to actually do something, to serve the people.
Barack Obama stands on the cusp of being sucked into this dysfunctional crowd. Only one ally can force the Congress to act: the electorate, the people. And only one thing will motivate the people to mobilize to force such action: A belief that the president is putting their issues, their concerns, their problems first.
So Mr. President, talk to us. Hold weekly Town Meetings in factories and town halls around the country, broadcasting them on the radio as modern-day version of FDR’s fireside chats. Listen to how people feel. Then lead, with the steel that change demands.
If you truly want change, you cannot accomplish it as president of the U.S. Congress, by cajoling and finger-wagging at the old-boys’ club. You need to be, and lead like, the president of the United States.