The President addresses a joint session of Congress for the first time tonight. Despite the lack of Republican support for his stimulus bill, and the churlish and I suspect risky refusal of some GOP governors to receive some of the federal money in that bill, look for President Obama to continue to sound the trumpet of bipartisanship. Why? Because it is working.
A poll in this morning’s Washington Post shows that 73 percent of the American people believe Obama is trying to compromise with Republicans while only 34 percent think the Republicans are trying to compromise with the President. Obama’s overall approval rating has descended from its stratospheric levels a month ago but he still garners a more than respectable 68 percent approval. What has happened in the debate over the stimulus bill is that Republican leaders succeeded in reminding rank-and-file Republicans why they belong to their party.
The GOP’s problem is that only about a third of the electorate self-identifies as Republican. The rest of the country is either Democratic or Independent. I have written elsewhere that Obama’s calls for bipartisanship may not really be directed at the GOP. It is the Independent, or unaffiliated voter, who is the target. They see Obama reaching out to the GOP, having Republican congressional leaders to the White House for drinks and consultation, and they think Obama is like themselves, rising above partisanship for the good of the country.
Obama’s graciousness is also part of his nature. Yesterday, he called newly appointed New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan to congratulate him on the assignment. Obama is not a Catholic and the Catholic bishops welcomed his administration with a postcard campaign focused on FOCA, a bill that has not even been introduced in this session. So, he did not have to acknowledge this important event in the life of the Church. But, he did. And, Archbishop Dolan wasted no time informing the press corps that he did. People like it when the President calls and, when you think about it, it is not difficult to imagine these two gracious and learned men becoming friends.
Note to Archbishop Dolan: The Obama family is still looking for a church so don’t hesitate to make a pitch that they click their heels together and say, "There’s no place like Rome!"
The content of the President’s speech tonight will matter as much as the style. His whole first month, his speeches have been tough and bracing, as the difficult economic circumstances suggest. But, Obama won by peddling hope not spinach, and we need some of that tonight. We also need a sense of direction, which the stimulus bill has begun. And, most of all, and related to the first two, we need a short history lesson, reminding us of the difficulties and sacrifices our forebears endured to make the nation and its citizenry prosper. No person in America can deliver a speech with the emotional power of our President. His should swing for the fences tonight. We need it.