The glaring disparity between the grand setting of Obama’s jobs speech, the pomp and ceremony of a joint session of Congress, and its predictably inconsequential content made it painful to watch. If you wanted to be charitable, I suppose you could say that he was trying to pour old budgetary wine into new bottles. But, truth be told, the bottles were old too. In all material respects, Obama was proposing to do the same things that he'd either done or proposed before on the basis of arguments that Republicans have heard before and rejected. It’s delusional to think Obama’s speech would make Republicans suddenly warm to a vintage they’d already sent back.
I say these things without any intention of demeaning the president or disparaging his proposals on their merits. What else did you expect him say? The economy is threatening to go down the tubes. Every liberal bone in Obama’s body is telling him that it’s the job of the federal government to do something about it through Keynesian fiscal policy. Absent his having undergone an ideological conversion on Martha’s Vineyard, it would have been shameful for Obama not to propose another round of economic stimulus. By the same token, it will be shameful if Republicans respond any differently now. Were either side to capitulate, it would reveal its lack of seriousness in the recent past.
The last national election brought us to a genuine political impasse. Each side lacks the political wherewithal to do the right thing by its lights, but has the wherewithal to keep things it regards as really bad from happening. So, yes, Obama’s speech, and the Democrats periodically springing to their feet to applaud him while Republicans sat sullenly on their hands, had a lot less to do with responsible government than naked electioneering. What did you expect? Democracies break impasses by having elections.
If ours were a parliamentary system, Prime Minister Obama would already have called one and we’d probably be just a couple of months away from resolving our current impasse one way or the other. In our Madisonian system, however, it requires at least two biennial national elections, and sometimes more than two, to redirect the ship of state from one settled course to another. Democrats took the wind out of the Bush administration's sails in 2006. But they weren’t in a position to start steering the ship until they took the White House and increased their congressional majorities in 2008. Now we’re in the midst of another glacial electioneering cycle in which Republicans are reasserting themselves and Obama is doing his best to keep a hand on the wheel. Say what you will about the wisdom of what each side's doing, but they're both doing their jobs as representative politicians.
We can argue over whether, in the grand scheme of things, the Madisonian system makes republican government more prudent or incapacitates it. But we can all agree, I think, that it’s not a recipe for riveting television programming.