Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Standing for something

Tonight, President Barack Obama makes what may be the defining speech on the defining concern of his first term in office, and he does it with the political wind at his back. The better to prepare himself, and us, for the imperfect storm that lies ahead.

The president is the beneficiary of a new year and our natural predisposition for calm right now. The holidays are over, we’ve moved out the last of the bills from the holidays, and we’ve worked off the last of the year-end feasts by shoveling snow. Spring, a season of built-in affirmation, is just around the corner.

But more concretely, President Obama is gaining ground as the objective of the native American sense that, sooner or later, things will improve. The latest New York Times/CBS poll, published Monday in The Times, finds that he benefits “from remarkably high levels of optimism and confidence among Americans about his leadership, providing him with substantial political clout as he confronts the nation’s economic challenges and opposition from nearly all Republicans in Congress …”

(The Times story on the poll findings was written by Jeff Zeleny and Megan Thee-Brenan.)

In tonight’s speech before a joint session of Congress, Obama is faced with the need to synthesize -- for a recalcitrant and partisan House and Senate, as well as a hopeful but wounded nation -- the key points of a bold, broad-based and achievable solution to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. If the NYT/CBS poll results are a reliable barometer, it’s a challenge the American people think he’s up to.

Some other parts of the poll are just as important to him politically; they validate the respect Americans have for making a good effort. Most of the telephone poll respondents surveyed said Obama was working hard to keep a campaign pledge of bipartisanship, The Times found, “but most faulted Republicans for their response to the president, saying the party had objected to the $787 billion economic stimulus plan for political reasons. …”

And then there's this … this mini-bombshell, a statistical nugget that frees the president from the absolute obligation to affect bipartisanaship — at least as far as a cross-section of the American people are concerned.

“Most said Mr. Obama should pursue the priorities he campaigned on, the poll found, rather than seek middle ground with Republicans,” the Times reported. “Most Americans said the president was trying to make good on his promise to bridge the partisan divide. About three-quarters, including 6 in 10 Republicans, said Mr. Obama had been trying to work with Republicans. But only 3 in 10 Americans said Republicans were doing the same.

“On the economic stimulus plan, 63 percent of poll respondents said Republicans opposed the legislation for political reasons, not policy ones. Seventy-nine percent said Republicans should now be working in a bipartisan manner rather than holding fast with their policies.”

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The GOP will try to spin this any number of ways. What it comes down to is, the country’s counting on Barack Obama to stand for something rather than fall for anything, even when the “anything” of bipartisanship looks politically refreshing and may be practically necessary.

The poll results couldn’t be clearer in this respect: Obama can’t afford to be so blinded by the prospect of a quasi-coalition government in America that he loses sight of the other coalition to be addressed: the people, and the broad mandate invested in him to be the agent of change. Bipartisanship doesn’t work if the guy across the aisle won’t extend his hand to yours.

This is the time to stand on principles, starting with the economic principles the new president will lay out before the American people tonight.
Image credits: Obama: Image from AP feed. Poll graphic: The New York Times

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