(The Root) — Government is shut down. Some 800,000-plus human beings are being furloughed or ordered to work without pay as we speak. And if Washington, D.C., fails to reach a debt-ceiling compromise in two weeks, the globe could be on the verge of an economic meltdown unlike anything history has ever seen.
Just another hot-mess apocalypse brought to you by, amazingly, a slick-haired band of fewer than three dozen rural, rednecky Republicans locked in a rinse cycle of Green Acres reruns. Mad yet? Even Republicans, like Long Island, N.Y., brawler Rep. Peter King, are fuming pink red and calling fellow Republicans names.
But if you managed to block out every slice of news-cycle noise and just let President Obama tell it, you would think you'd just won a Groupon deal for a free yoga class.
Most Americans get the president's penchant for being the calm in the storm. Fine; honey tastes better than vinegar. It's his signature cool-pose style, half engineered as a way to always stand above the fray, Zen sharpened and carefully chiseled in an effort to completely blast long-standing stereotypes of angry, militant black men on a marathon head stomp.
In 2008 voters chose this trait over the emotional push-button style of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Unflappable, determined Confucian in the crisis versus the six-shooter-on-the-hip cowboy of the previous eight years. Watching Obama was like watching a black Lao Tzu, an embodiment of the ancient Taoist who once said, "Respond to anger with virtue. Deal with difficulties while they are still easy. Handle the great while it is still small."
Times like these, however, call for a street-court approach. We now hunger for flashes of impatience and outrage. Maybe it's time for the hard foul under the basket, the elbow to the face and a rain of crashing glass from a moment of dunking rage. As 20th-century journalist H.L. Mencken put it: "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats."
Instead we're getting shoulder shrugs, sobering half-indictments and matter-of-fact talking points in which the president appears bored at best. While images of food-fighting adolescent Tea Party conservatives in suits are enough to drive us all insane, the president approaches briefing-room podiums with the softness of a toilet paper commercial.
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.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.