Only President Barack Obama could keep digging in a barn filled to the roof line with manure and find a brand new pony. Yet that is what the country and indeed the world needed in his non-State of the Union budget speech Tuesday night to a joint session of the US Congress.
Talk is cheap, cynicism easy, and reporters easily jaded. But in the 34th day of his Presidency, Obama pulled a Franklin D. Roosevelt motivational fireside chat moment that energized the American public and, perhaps, the world in his speech.
The world’s economy might be circling down the drain, but the key line of the night was directed at high school students considering dropping out, but really to all Americans: “Giving up is not just quitting on yourself but quitting on your country.” Polls released all week show a huge percentage of Americans support him. Predictably, the Republican response was… business as usual and astonishingly tone-deaf and out of step with the rest of the country.
While Obama was setting specific goals on healthcare, alternative energy, and education, the opposition party talked tax cuts and deregulation -- the same issues that got us to where we are today.
Compare and contrast last night to scheduled meetings Wednesday in Westminster between UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the devolved (read secession hopeful) first ministers of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to fight over £500,000 of budget cuts. They’ll fight then all eat a nice lunch together and be home before the traffic gets heavy.
On the other hand, Rahm Emanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff, took his first days off over the recent US President’s Day bank holiday weekend to go skiing with his family, saying “he had not seen them in a month!” Everyone in the Obama White House is putting in 18-hour days.
I drive by Welsh Assembly buildings or Westminster offices where one could fire a cannon and the the shell would be the only moving thing to turn on the light sensors . I sat in a restaurant across from a key ministry building and watched entire 10 floors of lights shut off one evening between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., meaning no one moving anyplace in the building during this economic and fiscal crisis?!?
The sun is rising on Obama’s Reagan-like “morning in America” and here in the UK it is foggy and damp. The UK is just entering an election cycle where PM Brown and the Labour Party are fighting for their political lives and trying to save the UK economy. The Conservatives (The Tories) toss them cement-filled flotation rings, then snicker as they flail around like frat boys on a drinking bender. They would rather see the economy crater than lift a finger to help because Labour would get credit and might win.
While we had a date certain election in the US, 04 November 2008, we could end up waiting 14 months here. Will there even be an economy to save by then? The UK Civil Service feels threatened in this economy as their always-safe jobs are attacked, while millions lose work and the UK heads toward an era of national strikes and strife vs. either pulling together to solve the big problems facing us.
Tuesday night, the word “courageous” was used to describe Obama’s speech. In the UK, “courageous” is pejorative thanks to the sitcom “Yes, Minister” and "Yes, Prime Minister.” It is used to describe actions that will send one down in flames.
Throughout the election campaign, Obama said we cannot afford to let this election, in this critical time, be about small things. He upbraided Republicans in a fiscal responsibility summit on Monday for attacking and fighting over less than 1% of total spending as they agreed on the rest but yet they tried to junk the entire Stimulus Bill by elevating small issues for political gain. As President he is taking the infamous bully pulpit and wielding it like a club, if you'll excuse a mixed metaphor.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Borwn is invisible -- and therein lies the rub. While many think he would be a good person to solve the crisis, his dour personality and desperate need of a charisma enema make it quite likely the more charismatic leader of the Tory Party, David Cameron, will become PM. So everyone is hunkered down, fighting every Wednesday during the Prime Minister's weekly appearance before Parliament with meaningless theatrical rhetoric and the rest of us suffer because at the end of the day, constituents do not matter.
So everyone here in the UK, quick, grab a shovel, we need to help someone here find that pony.
Denis Campbell is a US journalist based in the United Kingdom. He contributes to newspapers and magazines, is a BBC Radio election commentator and publishes the daily e-magazine The Vadimus Post from the Latin Quo Vadimus – where are we headed and do we know why?