President Obama ended his State of the Union address where he started his political ascent—offering to be a leader who produces can-do bipartisanship in a divided, dysfunctional capital.
"Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns," he told a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. "Imagine if we did something different."
Yes, imagine if rather than empty promises, the president could report two-party progress on big issues like immigration, climate change, social mobility, and the debt and deficit.
Actually, you don't need to imagine. Such leadership exists in this country—just not in Washington. More on that in a bit.
Recalling the 2004 Democratic Convention address that launched his national political career—the one that declared there wasn't a liberal America or a conservative America, a black America or a white America—the president acknowledged that he had not delivered on that vision.
"It's held up as proof not just of my own flaws"Š—"Šof which there are many"Š—"Šbut also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it," Obama said.
Who thinks his 2004 promise is naïve? Lobbyists, lawmakers, contractors, pundits, and the scores of other professional partisans whose money and power are invested in gridlock. Foremost among them are liberal commentators who mock calls for bipartisanship and dismiss the president's vision as magical thinking.
Polarization didn't begin with Obama. He can't end it without bucking his increasingly stubborn liberal base and overcoming even stiffer resistance from a hyper-conservative GOP base. But he is partially responsible for the problem he pledged anew to fight.
There can still be "a better politics," Obama said.
"Understand—a better politics isn't one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine," he said. "A better politics is one where we appeal to each other's basic decency instead of our basest fears.
"A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than 'gotcha' moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people's daily lives."
He said there is common ground to be found on issues such as abortion and teenage pregnancies, immigration, voting rights, and judicial reform.
"I have no more campaigns to run," Obama said. "My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I've had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol"Š—"Što do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you'll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger."
He acknowledged there is good reason for cynicism. "But I still think the cynics are wrong." Does he really? After six years of blaming the GOP and accusing pundits of overstating his ability to change Washington, Obama still has the audacity to hope?
I doubt it. If there is any hope, it's in the states, where there is still some level of cooperation between GOP and Democratic leaders. Two hours before Obama's address, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan delivered his annual speech to the state Legislature, sharing credit with Democrats and Republicans for tackling Detroit's financial crisis and lowering unfunded liabilities for school and state employee legacy costs. Snyder is a newly reelected Republican governor who may run for president in 2016.
"While we solve problems in Michigan, we have gridlock in Washington," he said. "And this is not a partisan comment folks—both sides have these issues." So very true.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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