Barack Obama dropped by the White House press room the other day to stick it to the Republicans in the name of comity and fellowship. He offered to cooperate with the Republicans in the Mafia spirit of making an “offer you can’t refuse.”
“I’m willing to move off some of the preferences of my party in order to meet them halfway,” he told the reporters, “but there’s got to be some give from their side as well. I also won’t hesitate to condemn what I consider obstinacy.”
The only way Republicans can demonstrate their lack of obstinacy, the president made clear, is to adopt the Democratic agenda and to tug a forelock and do it now. “Bipartisanship cannot mean that Democrats give up everything they believe in … and then we have bipartisanship. That’s not how it works in any realm of life.” Then, stepping behind his wife’s fashionable skirt, he tried a little domestic jest: “That’s certainly not how it works in my marriage with Michelle, though I usually give in most of the time.” Hint to Republicans: he’ll play the wife, and you be the henpecked husband.
His hope, said the man whose election was some of the greatest orchestrated theater since Sarah Bernhardt’s annual final goodbye tour, “is that this doesn’t become political theater.” Mr. Obama, smartest guy ever though he may be, hasn’t learned what any old vaudeville ham could have told him, that what plays in the opera house in Chicago doesn’t necessarily play at the Bijou in Peoria.
Mr. Obama’s tough-guy act probably impressed the unforgiving liberals on his left as much as it frightened the Republicans. Big Labor is mad at him for a laundry list of disappointments: the “card check” bill to eliminate the secret ballot in union elections, legislation now suffering a bad case of rigor mortis; the health care “reform” legislation, giving out the death rattle with its sweetheart deals for the unions; the withdrawal of his inept nominee for director of the Transportation Security Administration, and most recently, the Senate’s refusal to confirm his nominee to the National Labor Relations Board. Some of the union chiefs are threatening to sit out the November congressional elections. Several of the self-selected leaders of the civil rights movement are muttering in their coffee cups as well. They’re afraid the president will abandon the agenda everyone else has already abandoned.
The president is suddenly making noises about tort reform, which would presumably make it harder for tort lawyers like John Edwards to get rich by manipulating the law, the juries and the courts. But attorneys know the president isn’t serious about this one, and he knows they know, because the lawyers cheerfully share their swag with Democratic candidates, including the president.
Mr. Obama is counting on committing a little “political theater” himself later this month when he summons the Republicans to a televised summit - or at least a televised molehill - to hear their ideas about resurrecting his health care “reform.” Like all politicians, Republicans can’t resist the opportunity to be photographed with a president and, if they’re lucky, to get five minutes before the television cameras, spouting prose. But they’ll have to be careful, as the president well knows, lest they come off as officious oafs and rude bumpkins.
Someone unimpressed by the president’s first-year performance is L. Douglas Wilder, the former governor of Virginia and once mayor of Richmond, who was one of the first prominent Democrats to endorse Mr. Obama. He sounds sadder but wiser writing in Politico, the Capitol Hill daily. He prescribes medicine that no messiah can take. This messiah must rid himself of the disciples who got him to Washington and replace them with men and women who know how to listen. “Hearing is one thing,” Mr. Wilder writes, “and listening is another.” The president, not the people around him, was elected to lead.
A man who once enjoyed vast popularity naturally thinks everything is all about him, not about what he can or cannot do. He imagines that his popularity will carry the day for the Democrats, even if it didn’t help his friends very much in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. But the implications of the election returns are swiftly sinking in with the rest of the Democratic politicians, who can tell the difference between an aberration and an avalanche. “The president should keep uppermost in his mind the biblical admonition as to what happens to those trees that do not bear ‘good fruit,’” Doug Wilder observes. “The ax is already at the tree.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.