Mere Presidents

He didn’t seem distracted, like he was thinking about lunch, and he didn’t seem to be deflecting responsibility, but taking it. This was a relief, and rather unusual in a Washington politician, or pretty much any politician. Blago, when he speaks, always looks like he’s thinking, “Are they believing me?” and “How’s this playing?” Barney Frank, in interviews, often looks like he’s thinking, “I’m bigger than you, don’t bore me.” And Harry Reid looks like he’s telling himself, “Remember—use your hands in the frame.” There’s some mad media coach out there telling our political figures to continually gesture with their hands within the TV frame, which is to say just below their heads. Everyone’s doing it. They must stop. They look like Marcel Marceau playing happy and sad. It doesn’t work with words! Nothing works that isn’t authentic.

It struck me as I watched Barack Obama, in giving a substantive economic speech just 11 days before his inaugural address, that he was trying to clear away a lot of brush, and giving the outlines of his plan in advance so as not to weigh down his inaugural with phrases like “solar panels and wind turbines,” “public-private partnership” and “computerized medical records.” So much of modern rhetoric is boring because so many modern phrases are ugly.

The brush-clearing suggests the inaugural itself won’t be programmatic, bureaucratic or factoid-laden but more broadly gauged and reaching at something higher. Will he reach for poetry? I hope so, if poetry is defined as no wasted words on the way to the thought and the thought is worthy and true.

To Thursday’s speech itself. It had a clean and clearly stated but rather grand opening: “Throughout America’s history, there have been some years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare. Then there are the years that come along once in a generation—the kind that mark a clean break from a troubled past, and set a new course for our nation. This is one of those years.” This may well turn out to be true, but is perhaps best said by others and in retrospect. Mr. Obama scored “an era of profound irresponsibility” that stretched “from corporate boardrooms to the halls of power in Washington, D.C.” Fair enough. He spoke of “our capacity for future greatness” and argued “the very fact that this crisis is largely of our own making means that it is not beyond our ability to solve.” This was a relief. It’s time someone began to speak of the current crisis with optimism, as if it can be handled and got through. This is not a nation of 300 million people in extremis and on a morphine drip; it’s a nation of 300 million people who are alive, alert and ready to go.

Mr. Obama promised “dramatic action” and said that while the cost of his proposals will be “considerable,” so will “the consequences of doing too little or nothing at all.” He again promised a public works program. Much of it seemed designed to answer the question, “What would the WPA have looked like if FDR had been an environmentalist?” In its lack of price tags and specific size and scope of proposals, the plan seemed more a conversation starter, as they say, than a thrown gauntlet.

Toward all this I suspect Americans will maintain a stance of hopeful ambivalence. We are a center-right nation and at least formally oppose gusher-like spending. But once you’ve got a deficit of more than a trillion dollars, two trillion hardly seems worse. You’re in the area of numbers so astronomical as to be unimaginable. It’s like hearing Pluto is 50,000 light years away but Saturn is 48,000 light years away. They’re both pretty far.

As for a big federal public-works program, there’s little sign voters will reject it outright and reason to believe many will embrace it. People are afraid. They want to be part of something. They want to build a road. And they want to be part of something they can see. They want to be able to look back on it 40 years from now and say, “I was part of that. We built that thing.”

In terms of public support, Mr. Obama shouldn’t get too abstract. He should be thinking hardhats. People want to make their country stronger—literally, concretely, because the things they fear (terrorism, global collapse) are so huge and amorphous. Lately I think the biggest thing Americans fear, deep down—the thing they’d say if you could put the whole nation on the couch and say, “Just free associate, tell me what you fear?”—is, “I am afraid we will run out of food. And none of us have gardens, and we haven’t taught our children how to grow things. Everything is bought in a store. What if the store closes? What if the choke points through which the great trucks travel from farmland to city get cut off? I have two months of canned goods. I’m afraid.”

Soon after the speech, Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell reacted with caution. He was low key. He didn’t attack. He said the current projected deficit of $1.2 trillion is “an eye-popping number,” and said he liked the part of Mr. Obama’s program that includes reducing tax rates for the middle class. “We intend to work with the new president . . . to try and get this right,” he said. The Republicans in the Senate are like swimmers ten feet offshore. They’re going to let the Obama wave roll over them, wait for the water level to even out, and then make a move. Who would believe them claiming to be the party of fiscal responsibility and smaller government now anyway? They need more time to pass between the high-spending Bush years and an eventual—and one hopes principled—opposition to Obamanomics.

During the postspeech coverage, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell spoke to a journalist about how presidents get advice and information. Ms. Mitchell noted that people often mean to speak hard truths but then “they walk into the Oval Office and get tongue tied.” She was referring to the awe with which we view the presidency, the White House, and the famous office with no corners in which presidents so often feel cornered.

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Five presidentsHere is an idea for everyone in Washington: Get over it. It’s distorting the system. This week we saw the past four presidents standing in the Oval Office for a photo-op on the afternoon of their private lunch. As you looked at the pictures afterward you had to think: How flawed were they? How many were a success?

Did you notice how they all leaned away from Jimmy Carter, the official Cootieman of former presidents? It was like high-school students to the new girl: “You can’t sit here, we’re the Most Popular table.”

The Founders, who were awed by the presidency and who made it a point, the early ones, to speak in their inaugural addresses of how unworthy they felt, would be astonished and confounded by the over-awe with which we view presidents now. We treat them as if they are the Grand Imperial Czar of the Peacock Throne, and we their ’umble servants. It’s no good, and vaguely un-American. Right now patriotism requires more than the usual candor. It requires speaking truthfully and constructively to a president who is a man, and just a man. We hire them, we fire them, they come back for photo-ops. They’re not magic.