It’s understandable that the president chooses law-professor prose over the knuckle-in-your-face style famously associated with past presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson and Theodore Roosevelt. The Affordable Care Act is, after all, law of the land that’s managed to pass the smell test of every branch of government. Lawyers, when the rest of us are looking, are not easily moved into breaking laws.
Yet when there’s not much politically to lose in the second term, the gloves should come off.
We don’t want Washington decorum; we want Washington unhinged and getting its act together. Mister Rogers reading nursery rhymes won’t cut it, but perhaps, if carefully delivered, the Angry Black Man could. Breaking through gridlock might mean less maneuvering your way around it and more slashing your way through it.
Thus, we seek the growl of Joe Clark; maybe the unmistakable, unpredictable flair of Malcolm X at a press conference. Where is John Amos playing James Evans Sr. when you need him? We have a president always eager to whip young black men into shape from the pulpit with stirring sermons, but who is lost for words when it’s time to tongue-lash immature white guys who hold the nation’s economy hostage.
We’re not asking for madness. But it’s difficult to watch. The president praised for rhetorical skill falls flat, constantly looking down in a search for words from note cards, when what he needs to do is stand tall, look the camera straight in the eye and bang his fist on the lectern.
It’s problematic because national mood, naturally, reflects presidential disposition. If the president looks resigned and exhausted, that’s not the most encouraging sign of progress in a dysfunctional stalemate. Is that all you’ve got, fam? Snickering on about bad arguments from the opposition and pitching some of your snarkiest greatest hits for copy?
As the shutdown heads into its first full business day, pundits will surely blame the gamesmanship of House Republicans. But if it lasts for weeks or (God forbid) months, blame will ultimately fall where, as Harry S. Truman once put it, the buck stops. The occasionally staged speech on the stump before crowds of adoring voters is not doing it. What’s needed is a very human, unscripted moment of raw nerve that will game-change the debate and snap us back from the brink.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. When he’s not mad, he can be reached via Twitter.