Last night's jobs speech by President Obama was the kind of political moment he needed: Fiery, challenging, filled with specific proposals presented in a straightforward style.
But I also fear it was also a gigantic bit of Kabuki theater 00 a bold, promising vision destined to achieve very little.
To find the reason, do the math: Electoral politics plus Washington D.C. inertia equals no progress.
More than another failed idea, the current wrangling over jobs is a microcosm of a larger dynamic which may paralyze American politics for quite a long time. For those who worry America may be on the verge of becoming an empty empire, this is where the failure will come -- not from some moral shortcoming, but from a governmental paralysis which keeps our leaders from effectively addressing the country's most pressing problems, even in a time of crisis.
Once again, let's do the math. When American voters grew dissatisfied with the country's progress last year, they gave the GOP control of the House of Representatives. In a more evenhanded time, that would be a reasonable idea, forcing the party in power to compromise with the party that isn't.
But what if the minority party doesn't want -- or isn't able -- to compromise?
Thanks to the Tea Party conservatives and its own priorities, GOP leaders have implemented a strategy that could win next year's presidential election, but at serious cost. At a time of historic unemployment, two wars underway and a persistent recession, Republicans will not allow the president to have any victory which could help him in the 2012 balloting.
Which means finding a reason to devalue every proposal he makes, keeping the country mired in the kind of economic slump that gets presidents fired. Obama revealed Thursday his strategy for combating that tactic -- creating proposals so straightforward, the GOP will look callous and petty in refusing them. In this scenario, blame for today's bad times is the hot potato everyone is flailing to avoid.
This is a pattern which has grown worse over time. The party out of power in Washington can only take over if the people running things fail. Which gives the minority power zero incentive to work with the other side, no matter which side is in the driver's seat. And if the Democrats lose the White House in 2012, expect them to adopt the GOP's strategy in spades.
I think the Republicans have a naturally stronger hand in this game, because their positions on issues are closer to the way average Americans feel. Suspicious of government power, desperate to believe in the righteousness of America, resentful of the growing tax burdens we all share, pestered by a niggling sense that morality is vanishing from the national psyche -- these are all concerns the GOP has articulated with sophistication.
Congress is counting on another well-established dynamic -- as much as people hate the legislature as an institution, they often feel better about their own representatives. Which means savvy incumbents can avoid paying a price for government inaction, especially if they can pin blame on the president. Here, I think the GOP's anti-government stance also offers an advantage; if your message is that government rarely works, who can blame you when it doesn't?
(I'm still wondering why people who have so little faith in government want increasingly powerful jobs running it.)
Breaking this logjam requires establishing a new dynamic, at a time when corporate money keeps both parties from taking any action which might affect corporate profits. Can the American people look past the gamesmanship and rhetoric to hold all our elected officials accountable for government's failures? Can the people force the legislature to lose its title as the least productive Congress in history?
I don't know. All I really know is these are the thoughts which came to me while watching President Obama address Congress Thursday.
And I didn't get much sleep that night.