The Has-been

The Best Revenge

Obama reminds his own party to keep its head and the other party to stop losing its mind.

Slate on the State of the Union: John Dickerson says Obama returned to the themes he campaigned on.Christopher Beam describes the partisan disharmony on the floor of the House. Fred Kaplan argues the federal spending freeze should extend to the Pentagon, too. See images from Obama’s first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.

President Obama

Despite the trappings of power, Washington runs on something else: panic. People in politics, after all, are like everyone else: We prefer to do what we’re good at. So for the past week, in the aftermath of Scott Brown’s victory and in anticipation of President Obama’s State of the Union address, Democrats in the nation’s capital have been politicians on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with each day bringing another mad run on the political bank.

America hired Barack Obama in November 2008 because he didn’t panic—and Wednesday night, he showed he remains as calm and determined as ever. Surrounded by anxious Democrats and overanxious Republicans, Obama sounded a bit like Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/ … If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken/ Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”

Keeping one’s head isn’t easy in Washington, and as the president saw this week, those who do often feel a little lonely. In the run-up to the State of the Union, backseat drivers gave the White House a slough of bad advice, much of it urging Obama to show an electorate that’s mad as hell that he’s even madder.

Wisely, Obama chose instead to make his case with reason as well as passion. He made clear that jobs must be Washington’s top priority, but he leveled with people that government can do only so much because “the true engine of job creation in this country will always be America’s businesses.” He promised to make America more competitive for the jobs of the future by promoting energy innovation—because if we’re not first, we’re last. But he spoke another truth too seldom heard in Democratic circles: If we want to create jobs in this country, we need an aggressive strategy to expand exports and promote trade, not put up barriers or shy away from trade agreements. During that part of the speech, congressional Democrats sat on their hands, but America cannot afford to.

On education, the sleeper hit of his first year, Obama showed that reform is here to stay. “We have broken through the stalemate between left and right,” he said. “Instead of funding the status quo, we only reward reform.” As he sets out to tackle America’s other broken systems, from health care to politics, the president should make “only reward reform” the Obama Doctrine.

Obama put his finger on the two deficits that irk and worry Americans most: the bleak long-term budget outlook and its partner in crime, the “deficit of trust” in government and in how Washington works. The past week gave America ample reason to worry on both fronts. As the president pointed out, congressional Republicans turned tail and killed a binding deficit commission, thereby proving that they won’t even work together to cut government, the one cause they profess to believe in.

Some Democrats showed they’re apparently not serious about governing, either, by unfairly savaging Obama’s modest, sensible spending freeze as a Hoover-esque move that won’t “excite the base.” Plenty of Americans were cheering at home when they heard the president’s irrefutable explanation: “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.”

Obama offered an honest and proportionate response to both sides. “I’m speaking to both parties now,” he ad-libbed. He reminded Democrats that if Washington doesn’t reduce our debt and spend taxpayers’ dollars well, ordinary families and the recovery itself will be the ones who suffer. At the same time, he put Republicans on notice that if they walk away from governing, he will take them to task for it—and if they don’t come up with any new ideas, he’ll remind the country that their old ones didn’t work.

In the face of considerable pressure to raise his voice, Obama stuck to the central promise of his campaign—to usher in a post-partisan era and change the tone of our politics, even if it takes awhile. That’s the path to a successful new decade, not a lost one.

In Obama’s second year, like his first, nothing but hard choices lie ahead—health reform, the deficit, the economy. Reminding members on one side to be serious and the other to grow up doesn’t mean enough will come around. But Obama’s State of the Union address offers a reassuring, common-sense blueprint in an anxious time.

Every president faces setbacks. What separates those who recover from those who don’t is the courage to challenge orthodoxy and solve problems. Running the country is serious business and the best politics is results. In times of panic more than ever, Washington must not forget: Governing well is the best revenge.