In the Arena

State of the Union

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As he heads into his big budget speech tonight–the rookie equivalent of a State of the Union Address–Barack Obama gets high marks from the public in both the New York Times and the Washington Post polls. The Republican attempt to play politics as usual at a time of national crisis receives low marks. Indeed, a staggering 79% believe that the GOP should expend more effort on finding a bipartisan middle ground with the President, while only 17% believe they should “stick to Republican policies.” By contrast, 56% believe Obama should stick to his policies and 39% think he should work harder at bipartisanship.

This seems an unfettered public rebuke of the anachronistic Republican strategy. And I predict–fearlessly, of course–that the President will be able to pick off more Republican votes as he moves into specific policy reform areas. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were Republican votes to be found in support of universal health insurance, especially if the final package offers the business community relief from that burden. There are also Republican environmentalists–John McCain comes to mind–who may favor Obama’s energy program (especially if Obama remains persistent in his quest to clean up military procurement, a McCain obsession).

Faced with this swelling tide of activism, David Brooks makes his usual, intelligent case for Burkean conservatism–and against the innate optimism of liberals–in the Times today. If Obama tries to do everything, Brooks argues, he will do nothing well. Perhaps. But, in a time of crisis, a half-baked effort is better than no effort at all. In any case, the column leaves a crucial question unanswered: And therefore…what? Is there any alternative for Obama but to try to confront the problems coming at him like an amped-up video game? And if the President has no choice but to try to solve everything, what does the loyal–hah–opposition do? Clearly, the skeevy Republican attempt to distort and play politics with Obama’s stimulus plan didn’t work.

A few weeks ago, Sam Tanenhaus announced the death of conservatism in The New Republic, but offered a reasonable (Burkean) path for conservatives in a liberal era. With the pendulum swinging left, the conservative job is to sand down the rougher edges of the liberal proposals–to be a constant damper on undue liberaloptimism about the perfectability of the human condition, a constant force for accountability–just as Bill Clinton’s New Democrats sanded down the rough edges of Reaganism, offering a more humane reform of existing social policies, when the pendulum was swinging right.

Given Obama’s insistence on accountability and fiscal discipline, there seems a real opportunity for cooperation here. All the Republicans have to do is shed their archaic obsessive-compulsive attempts to deny the legitimacy of a smart and popular President and come to the understanding that, in a time of crisis, opposition is not a political game, but a solemn responsibility.

Update: Commenter Shepherdwong thinks my use of “liberaloptimism” above was a “jab.” Actually, it was a typo. As I’ve written in the past, I’m far more comfortable with optimism than with pessimism. If I didn’t think there were ways to ameliorate most of our public policy problems, I would have quit this dodge a decade ago to hang out at the beach and write novels.