Wednesday, January 27, 2010


The Competence Factor

Every State of the Union is filled with a laundry list of policy proclamations. There will also be the requisite guests in the balcony that symbolize some presidential priority. And, of course, there will be the staged lines guaranteed to elicit applause/standing ovation from one side of the aisle and scorn (at best) from the other side (will the GOP assign a page to be on "gag-Joe-Wilson" duty?).

However, the best thing Barack Obama might try to present tonight isn't a huge list, but project more a mood of control. In the last few weeks, continued unemployment, the health-care reform mess -- combined with the Christmas Day airplane plot -- helps underscore a sense that Washington, DC, isn't working as it should. Has Barack Obama launched too ambitious an agenda for sclerotic Washington to push through? Is it too much, too soon? Was a freshman president who had barely four years as a senator too naive to think the "establishment" could juggle all the balls he tossed into the air?

Those balls are still floating.

Obama needs to put forth words of to speak to the nation's broader anxiety -- anxiety grounded in both economic and personal safety fears. That means he's got to go beyond just talking about job creation.

He's got to to reassure the country that his approach to dealing with terrorists -- closing Gitmo, moving detainees stateside, trying them in civilian courts, giving them Miranda rights -- is not just constitutional, but is also the smartest option that will keep Americans safe. (And, yes, that means at home and abroad: our servicemen and women shouldn't, say, have to fight terrorists that have been released from Gitmo).

In short, Barack Obama has to reassure the American people that they were correct when they took a flier on a freshman senator who just happened to be attractive, had a great personal story, a beautiful family and could speak fantastically. Can he convince them that he's competent enough to get Washington working?

Tonight's speech is a start, but after a disappointing first year, Barack Obama needs, in the days ahead, the power of deeds rather than words.

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