Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is currently teaching at The University of Montana. He offered this column on President Obama's first State of the Union address:
It isn’t the American people who aren’t eager for change. It’s Barack Obama.
The President spent his first year in office either unwilling or unable to change his approach to the Congress. His virtually hands off, milk toast attitude toward providing legislative leadership has stymied the public’s demand for change. But it appears that the President may have stepped on a bold new path.
In his first State of the Union speech, Pres. Obama’s rhetoric soared—just as was expected. Through the use of cadence, imagery, inflection, and passion, he—at last—reflected leadership. With his words he separated himself from the legislative branch, the Congress, and in so doing became a President for change. For an entire year Obama has seemed to be simply an auxiliary of the law-making process; adjusting his proposals to the Congress’s glacially slow process. He has been patient to a fault, standing aloof while the Senate tied progress toward change into a parliamentary knot. The prime example is Obama’s seemingly helplessness while the Senate Finance Committee dithered away 2009 with a foolish strategy that unnecessarily derailed reform of health care.
Obama’s respect for the Congress, combined with his determination to find middle ground compromise, has been little more than fodder for members of Congress, particularly those with an eye only on the next election. Only a year ago voters elected Democrats in near record numbers to the U.S. House and Senate and overwhelmingly voted for Obama. At other times in the nation’s history, that would have been considered a mandate for new policies—for change.
And it was. So what happened?
Two things have frozen congressional action on most of the President’s policy priorities. First is the determination by Senate Republicans that no legislation of consequence will pass without a super majority of 60 votes. The Senate’s antiquated rules are a clear denigration of our nation’s cherished tradition of majority rule, but Republicans have relied upon the Senate’s 60 vote requirement. Republicans have used the filibuster more than twice as often as any other congressional session in American history. The House of Representatives, which requires only a democratic 51 percent for passage, has, in only one year, passed all five of the President’s major priorities, only to watch them stall, fail, or be marginalized by the Senate.
The second reason we have not realized the change that Americans demanded in November of 2008 is Obama’s unwillingness to place his hands on the legislative reins and aggressively pursue the U.S. Senate to enact the change for which Americans voted.
In his State of the Union message, it did seem as though the President has learned the lesson and is more determined to lead, not only from the Oval Office, but on Capitol Hill as well. He spoke more bluntly and pointedly than any President in modern history. His firm admonition to Republicans “just saying no to everything might be good short term politics, but it is not leadership” and his pointed remarks to Democrats to stop “running for the hills” represents a significant change for Obama. He was in their face, determined, and willing to not only cajole but also to criticize.
With unusually pointed remarks and necessary criticism of both the Congress and the Supreme Court, Obama seems finally prepared to use the Presidency as, in Teddy Roosevelt term “the bully pulpit.” Hopefully, the President will now emulate Harry Truman’s feistiness, Franklin Roosevelt’s charm and determination, and Ronald Reagan’s ability to go over the head of Congress and straight to the American people.
Emulating those leaders is a tall order. Let’s hope our President is up to it.