President Barack Obama’s effort to pivot Washington’s attention back onto the economy — and claim the public opinion upper hand before his budget battle with Congress is rejoined this fall — had all the hallmarks of a recent State of the Union address.
The speech at Knox College in Illinois was exhaustively advanced, extensively rehearsed, carefully leaked and filled more with aspirational notions than with legislative specifics. It balanced olive branch passages promising an eagerness to work with congressional Republicans with blunt-force admonishments about the GOP’s penchant for spurning him at every turn.
And, in true late January fashion, the soaring rhetoric that Obama hoped would redefine his summer and re-energize his fall was met with such predictable partisanship that it will do absolutely nothing to soak up any of the poisonous pool that he and his congressional antagonists are stuck in.
Fifteen months before the midterm elections, Wednesday could end up being remembered as the day it became undeniably clear that Washington’s leaders are still committed to keeping the key to their gridlock hidden — at least until the voters take their next turn at shuffling the power dynamic.
The timing could not be more curious, given that Obama was flying to rural northwestern Illinois and top Republicans were polishing their derisive responses to what he hadn’t said yet, just as NBC News and the Wall Street Journal were delivering the details of their latest poll, which could have been titled: “It didn’t look like the capital’s standing could slip lower, but it has.”
The most dire numbers for the institution of Congress: 83 percent of adults are thumbs-down on the job it’s doing, a disapproval rating never exceeded in this survey. And 57 percent of registered voters said they would vote to replace every single person in the House and Senate if they were given that option, another all-time high.
The most worrisome numbers for Obama: His approval rating is 45 percent, the lowest it’s been since the debt ceiling showdown two summers ago. And a decisive majority of 56 percent described themselves as either "uncertain" or "pessimistic" about how the president will perform for the remainder of his time in office — 8 points higher than at his second inauguration in January.
The most problematic numbers for congressional Republicans: Just 22 percent believe they’re interested in unifying the country in a bipartisan way, compared with 45 percent for Obama. And 56 percent of all voters view the Hill GOP as too inflexible in dealing with the president — although, complicating things further for the lawmakers, a 35 percent plurality of Republican voters also view them as too quick to give in to the president.
That may help explain why Speaker John A. Boehner’s favorable-to-unfavorable percentages are 29-22 among conservatives and 39-18 among tea party supporters.
There’s one curious bit of good news for both sides in the NBC/WSJ numbers: The percentage of those polled who want a Democratic Congress elected in 2014 is 44 percent, while the share hoping for a Republican majority is an identical 44 percent. That's a finding that will do nothing to persuade either side’s congressional leadership to push away from the stasis status quo.
“With this endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball, and I am here to say this needs to stop,” Obama declared — the capital substituting for the half of the population he views as focused all-to0-robotically on impeding his progress. “I will not allow gridlock or inaction or willful indifference to get in our way.”
He reiterated his readiness to use executive powers as robustly as possible to help the middle class. But he didn’t provide much clarity about his strategy for easing the recalcitrance of Congress on the big fiscal policy questions that have to be answered this fall, starting with the future of the sequester and the next necessary increase in the debt limit.
Some in the GOP are eager to embrace his ideas, he said, but they fear “swift political retaliation for cooperating with me.” Some have a genuinely different philosophy, he allowed at Knox, chosen because it was also the sight of his first high-profile economic speech as an Illinois senator eight years ago.
“In either case, I say to these members of Congress: I’m laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. So now it’s time for you to lay out your ideas. You can't just be against something. You got to be for something.”
The presidential rhetoric may have been soaring, but the response from the top Republicans was just as searing.
“It’s a hollow shell,” Boehner said of the speech, "an Easter egg with no candy in it.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “You’d think the president was unveiling the next Bond film or something,” but the speech was “more like a midday rerun of some '70s B-movie.”
In other words, each side in this broken marriage is still all about blaming the other spouse.