The State of Our Union: Politics As Usual (In a Good Way, Maybe?)

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01/28/2010 12:08 PM |

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The state of the union is such that if this president is going to dissuade this nation of goons from its buyer’s remorse over his presidency and move forward with the important things he needs to do, he’s going to have to get better at scoring pandering populist points. Which he seems to have done pretty well. Consider:

-The healthcare sections, direct and indirect, were pretty masterful. A straightforward resetting of the debate on the bill’s actual terms; a kick in the pants to Dems (don’t “run to the hills”), which backs up his apparent continued behind-the-scenes work on getting a bill passed, while also playing well to voters from across the political spectrum who are fed up with congressional Dems for one reason or another; and a pointed jab at GOP obstructionism.

-Which paid off pretty well when Republicans refused to applaud the mention of the very real tax cuts included in the stimulus bill (“I thought I’d get some applause on that one“), and at the president’s proposal to recoup bailout funds with a bank tax.

-And speaking of anticorporate sentiment: getting at last week’s terrible corporations-are-people-too Supreme Court decision overturning campaign finance restrictions was pretty much a no-brainer. Plus he got to take the same side as the birthers by bitching about “foreign corporations,” too. I’m generally queasy when politicians take on judges—what they do is often arcane, and they have lifetime appointments on the federal level, which makes them very vulnerable to the popular resentment out of which came the whole “(conservative) judicial restraint vs. (liberal) judicial activism” meme, which makes it very hard to sell some people on the necessity of an evolving Constitution. (The same people who have trouble with other kinds of evolution, often.) But then, last week’s decision was a bad one, and as a scholar of Constitutional law our president ought to comment on this sort of thing. As a bonus, Sam Alito took the comments very personally—and though the whole “not true” thing is overblown, it will do much to put to bed the abovementioned myth about conservative judges being more apolitical than their progressive counterparts.

What we’re seeing, in closing, is a president who is more willing to hedge on nuance than he was as a candidate. Those of us who once respected him precisely because he seemed disinclined to take these sorts of shortcuts may have underestimated the extent to which impotent populist rage is what got him elected in the first place; it’s also the biggest threat to his priorities, which remain important and worthwhile things.