The Battles Worth Fighting

In classical music they call them the old warhorses – the pieces that please the crowds and bore the musicians to tears – the 1812 Overture, Ravel’s Bolero, Bizet’s Carmen Suite and that sort of thing. And in musical theater there’s The Sound of Music and Bye-Bye Birdie and that old chestnut, The Man from La Mancha. Musicals like these – and there are many of them – are hardly challenging, musically or dramatically, but they’re what keep many a dinner theater afloat and keep lots of high school kids busy each spring. They persist, as there’s always an audience for maudlin sentimentality and superficial conflict. But that last one pulls out all the stops, with its manipulatively heroic anthem, To Dream the Impossible Dream. The nuns told Maria to climb every mountain, until you reach your dream of course, but in that musical version of the Don Quixote business the idea is that no one ever really reaches their dream – face it, you are dead-certain to fail, and that’s that. But you might as well do your best anyway. The only battles worth fighting are losing battles after all. That’s the key line in the spoken dialog. And that appeals to the martyr in all of us. Life always gets the best of even the best of us, so do what’s right, even if it’s hopeless, or maybe precisely because it is hopeless. Like Don Quixote you’ll lose everything – everyone always does – but you’ll save your soul.

And that has a certain appeal these days. The nation seems to be falling apart, or maybe it’s the whole of the West. The economy is collapsing, again. The political process has seized up. And no one in power can seem to do anything, much less any private individual. Henry David Thoreau did say that most men lead lives of quiet desperation – he thought that was pretty much the human condition. And he may have been right, and so a musical that taps into that feeling was inevitable. There’s money to be made there. All you have to do is tap into that feeling of quiet desperation, at your utter uselessness, and posit the idea of at least going down in noble flames, admired by all, even if they admire you far too late to have their admiration count for a damned thing. Sure, you tilted at windmills – but so what? At least you did something.

And so, on Thursday, September 8, 2011, President Obama addressed a joint session of congress, on the jobs crisis, and secondarily on the national debt. And of course he was tilting at windmills, as John Cole pointed out before Obama spoke:

I gotta admit I have no desire to watch Obama speak tonight. Not because I don’t like him, but because I’m just feeling sort of fatalistic today and not really sure anything can be done to solve this crisis that has been developing for 3-4 decades. Plus, he’s not crazy, and will give a sober, rational speech, so there won’t be that train-wreck-in-the-waiting effect that you get with the GOP. Besides, we already know what is going to happen.

Obama will propose something moderate and completely reasonable, but we all know it is not going to be enough to get us out of this mess, and that assumes we can even get it past the teaheadist House (we won’t – they are in full on tilt mode). He’ll get flayed alive by the usual suspects on the left, Paul Krugman will be mainlining thorazine by the end of the speech, and someone at Firedoglake will call for a primary or impeachment.

The right, of course, will ignore everything he said and scream about the program costing too much, and trumpet deregulation, offshore drilling, claim Obama is over his head while making teleprompter jokes, and then go back to wailing for tax cuts and screaming Obama is doing nothing about jobs.

The media will spend the night focusing on how many Republicans refused to clap, or comparing Obama to Perry, insinuating that Perry is manly and Obama is a pussy, Maureen Down will write another column calling him a wimp, and we’ll have a rogues gallery of rightwing dickheads from Ed Rollins to Mark Halperin to whomever the Politico shits-up spewing bullshit on every channel. Each network will be sure to include one milquetoast corporatist Democrat like Evan Bayh for balance, because all the left’s effective communicators are busy sending dick pics to random women on twitter or lunching at AIPAC. …

Well, that’s about it. And whatever Obama proposes cannot pass. Cole decided not to watch. But he does add this:

What would I do if I were Obama? Other than resigning and spending the rest of my life writing a book every couple of years, living a pretty damned good life, watching my children grow up, and telling everyone in the country to eat a bag of salted dicks, fix this mess yourselves? I’d go all in. Nothing he is going to propose tonight is going to get passed without being watered down to nothing. The House and Senate dysfunction will see to it. So go for it. Use the speech to propose everything you can. Massive infrastructure spending, extension of unemployment benefits that will be automatically renewed every six months until unemployment is under 7%, a public investment back to free up capital for small business, you name it. GO BIG. Hell, propose putting a million Americans to work building that god-damned wall around Mexico the Republicans are so fired up about. Just go nuts and use the event to frame the Republicans as do-nothing. And if they start their usual bullshit in the stands with the “You Lie” crap, go off. Break out a metaphorical STICK and beat some pudgy wingnut with a southern drawl and a shit-eating grin in the audience with it. Call them liars and frauds and point out the bullshit they have been peddling for decades is what got us here. If someone so much as mentions inflation or the bond market, take your shoe off and throw it at them. If you miss, throw the other one. That’s what I would do.

Well, Obama didn’t go there. But he came close, in his kind of Don Quixote moment:

Facing low approval ratings and constant Republican criticism as his re-election campaign starts up, President Barack Obama challenged Congress on Thursday night to put the good of the nation over political benefit and pass a huge jobs plan he proposed.

In a speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama told the legislators to “stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy” by quickly approving the $447 billion package of measures so he can sign it into law.

“The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours,” Obama said to applause. “The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy. The question is whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.”

Obama also told legislators that they should quickly pass his plan, called the American Jobs Act.

“There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation,” the president said. “Everything in here is the kind of proposal that’s been supported by both Democrats and Republicans – including many who sit here tonight. And everything in this bill will be paid for. Everything.”

That’s the opening of the CNN account of the speech, and they also carefully detail what’s in the plan – while noting none of it has a ghost of a chance of passing. Obama just said he was tired of the bullshit that meant nothing would ever get done, and he was sure the American people were too. And Michele Bachmann said Obama insulted Congress by calling it a “circus” – her feelings were really, really hurt. But you can see why, as he basically pitted “the people” against Congressional deadlock:

Tonight we meet at an urgent time for our country. We continue to face an economic crisis that has left millions of our neighbors jobless, and a political crisis that has made things worse. This past week, reporters have been asking “What will this speech mean for the President? What will it mean for Congress? How will it affect their polls, and the next election?” But the millions of Americans who are watching right now: they don’t care about politics. They have real life concerns. Many have spent months looking for work. Others are doing their best just to scrape by – giving up nights out with the family to save on gas or make the mortgage; postponing retirement to send a kid to college. These men and women grew up with faith in an America where hard work and responsibility paid off. They believed in a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share – where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in awhile. If you did the right thing, you could make it in America. But for decades now, Americans have watched that compact erode. They have seen the deck too often stacked against them. And they know that Washington hasn’t always put their interests first.

You want a fight? You get a fight. Let’s do the right thing, for the people who kind of hired us to do the right thing, like extending and expanding the payroll tax breaks, so folks have a little more money in their pockets:

I know some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live. Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away.

Damn, he was picking on them, and Kevin Drum adds this:

Well, that was sort of an interesting speech. Substantively and rhetorically, it was practically the paradigm of Obama’s “most reasonable man in the room” strategy. Over and over, he offered up proposals that Republicans had supported in the past and that appealed to conservative sensibilities. More than half of it is tax cuts. He was so careful not to suggest anything with even a hint of Democratic parentage that it was almost painful to watch.

But the tone of the speech was much more aggressive than usual. Not aggressive enough, maybe, but then, a joint session of Congress isn’t really the place for a stormy partisan stem-winder. By the usual standards of these things, he showed a lot of fire and he poked Republicans pretty hard.

“You should pass this right away.” That’s Obama’s new tagline. And sure, Congress should pass it right away. But I have to confess that I still don’t see the legislative road to passage here.

Obama was tilting at windmills of course:

The incentive for Republicans to obstruct everything that comes from the White House remains the same as it’s ever been, and it remains as strong as it’s ever been. Helping the economy helps Obama’s reelection, and that’s no good for Republicans. And making sure that everyone in America hates “Washington” IS good for Republicans.

And he points to Marc Ambinder:

Getting things done – anything – means that government is doing something. And that’s bad. So the worst thing that can happen is for anything associated with the president to pass cleanly, or even at all. If you’re a Republican member of Congress, there is no real incentive to compromise.

The GOP has created a political feedback loop that is calculated to destroy President Obama’s credibility as a change agent. They’ve figured out that when government is gridlocked and sclerotic, even silly and absurd, no one in Washington comes out smelling like a rose. No one seems reasonable, because nothing gets done. The reasonable man just looks weak.

And add that these people where elected by voters who hate government, because it just gets in the way and ruins thing, people who want to dismantle the government, except for military. And Drum adds this:

So: nice speech. Good to see some fire in the belly. But I think the prognosis for action remains dim. …

My guess is that the speech will quickly be forgotten, Congress will return to its usual squabbling, and Obama’s reasonableness will shortly be buried beneath the usual howling from the Drudge/Fox/Limbaugh axis about how wildly radical his plan his. Reporters will press the Republican leadership for a while about why they aren’t supporting proposals that are so basically conservative, but they’ll get bored with this before long and give it up.

Just to hedge my bets, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans do pass one or two of Obama’s proposals. As long as they don’t pass the whole thing, then (a) they can take credit for passing the good parts and cutting out the pork, (b) they’ll seem reasonable in the process, and (c) it won’t add up to a big enough stimulus to help the economy (and Obama’s reelection) much anyway. That would actually be a pretty winning strategy for them.

That’s cynical, or realistic. But Andrew Sullivan had some interesting reactions during the speech:

A direct challenge for infrastructure investment – a patriotic challenge…. It’s a big bet on the country’s desire for action, not debate. And so far, it sounds like something a sane Republican would be happy to support.

And this:

This is the moment when Obama, rather than the GOP, ups the ante. This is what you might call aggressive conciliation. And here’s what I’m also hearing: a very stirring appeal to patriotism, to the idea that America can be far better than we have become today. The repetitive comparison between America and China – the appeal to global competitiveness – is one of the best ripostes to the Big Lie that this president isn’t somehow in love with this country.

And this:

A threat to take this vision across the country if the GOP doesn’t cooperate now… That’s Truman-speak. After months of mild attempts to get Republicans to agree, he hasn’t caved, and he hasn’t demonized them. But he has now upped the ante, and has new fire in his belly.

And this:

This was indeed a speech directed at independents and also at those who fear that America is in terminal decline. It was rooted in patriotism; it was framed to portray Obama as the pragmatic centrist he actually is. And it was not dishonest – these are the choices, short-term and long-term, that we have to make. And we should not be required to wait for another year and a half for action.

And there was PM Carpenter:

Tonight, Obama began his reelection campaign, aiming directly at the problem children, the Republican Party. That may sound like political par-for-the-course stuff, but for Obama it isn’t. To me, he sounded rather done with the preposterous business of bipartisanship, at least with these particular boys and girls. No more. He aimed at the GOP’s intransigence, its tedious hypocrisy, its do-nothingness and its deliberate defeatism. Obama cajoled and threatened. He essentially demanded all or nothing. He contrasted. He led.

But there is also Jonathan Bernstein:

So as far as things passing Congress, it’s not going to be a good speech or public pressure that would do it; it would be finding a way to make it in the interests of House Republicans to cut a deal that gets them things they want, too. Does this package, and an accompanying legislative strategy, do that? I don’t know, but that’s the question to ask, I think.

But there is Andrew Sprung:

We are told by political scientists that presidential speeches don’t move public opinion. But according to a host of polls, people support the individual measures Obama has been pushing – most broadly, they support action to produce jobs. So the question is whether a president can mobilize popular opinion for proposals that are already reasonably popular.

And there’s Ezra Klein:

Of course, in much the same way that everyone can find something to like in this plan, everyone can find something to dislike. If you believe tax cuts are ineffective during a demand-driven crisis, the plan spends a lot of money on tax cuts. If you don’t believe in infrastructure spending, there’s plenty of it in here to offend you. If government spending goes against your moral code, well, the government is going to spend money. And next week, when the Obama administration releases its deficit-reduction ideas, liberals are going to be a lot less enthusiastic than they are tonight.

And finally there is Stan Collender:

The president’s tone – his seeming anger and impatience – will be the headlines on Friday and, other than 9/11, the primary topic on the Sunday talk shows. And the banner headlines will be “Pass this now.” Advantage White House.

But maybe not, as Obama did say this:

This larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own – that’s not who we are. That’s not the story of America.

Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and envy of the world.

But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future – a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad; launch the National Academy of Sciences; and set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.

Ask yourselves – where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges; our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?

How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip? What kind of country would this be if this Chamber had voted down Social Security or Medicare just because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do? How many Americans would have suffered as a result?

No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.

Well, that is stirring, but the other guys do believe, with every fiber of their being, that we can restore prosperity if we just dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own. They call that freedom. And they were elected by people who believe, with every fiber of their being, the exact same thing. And they control the House, where all government spending is authorized, or not. There’s no getting around that.

So, nice speech – and maybe the only battles worth fighting are the losing battles. You save your soul and all that. But here’s the thing. You still lose. And that’s still a stupid musical.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bipartisanship, Obama as the Grown-Up, Obama Stands Up to Republicans, Obama's Address to Joint Session of Congress, Obama's Jobs Speech and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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