There’s an old saying in journalism that translates easily to politics: “Every reporter is a hope; every editor a disappointment.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but journalists get the point.
Similarly, citizens have learned that candidates always get our hopes up and elected officials inevitably let us down.
This week’s case in point is President Obama. Up until Wednesday night, he’d had a really bad couple of weeks. The polls and the pundits reinforced the conventional wisdom that the candidate of change we could believe in had become the president of a status quo we can’t stand. The Right was triumphant and the Left despondent.
The only question seemed to be whether the failed Obama presidency would follow the one-term route of Jimmy Carter or morph into Bill Clinton’s post-1994 defensive crouch.
Jon Stewart, my favorite source of fake news and trenchant commentary, twisted the knife. His "Daily Show" for Wednesday displayed a patriotically colored “Democratic National Committee possum,” legs stiffly in the air, with the slogan “You can’t hurt us any more; we’re already dead.”
Never mind that the facts hardly supported such a negative conclusion. The Kansas City Star on Jan. 19 quoted a Congressional Quarterly study that found a remarkable record of legislative success. If you rely on the daily press, you can be excused for not knowing that Mr. Obama has won nearly 97 percent of the votes in Congress on which he took a position. That was the best record by a president in at least 50 years, CQ reported.
And the fact checker Politifact.com two weeks ago assessed the extent to which Mr. Obama has kept his campaign promises. The fact checkers counted 502 promises made. So far, the score is 91 kept, 33 partially kept and more than half the rest “in the works.” Of the 25 promises judged most important, Politifact concludes that only one has been broken and one stalled, with at least some progress toward the rest.
That was the context for Mr. Obama’s first State of the Union address. I tuned in with the same mix of emotions I feel when Missouri plays Kansas – high hopes but grave apprehension. The apprehension was shaped by the conventional wisdom, the hopes by the one thing even his critics concede: The man can make a speech.
That he did. Some of the instant analysts found it flat (Sarah Palin was disappointed, she said on Fox). Others thought it conciliatory, and there were certainly the obligatory calls for bipartisanship along with the equally obligatory overstatement of our American virtues.
The speech I heard, though, was mainly a stern and forceful lecture aimed not only at the troubled electorate but maybe even more directly at the Senate, calling out the cowards in his own party and the recalcitrant Republicans. He repeatedly noted that the House has passed important bills that languish in the Senate.
He reminded those Senate Democrats that they were elected to govern, “not to run for the hills.” And he pointedly warned the Republicans that if they insist on requiring 60 votes to pass anything, they will share the responsibility for inaction. He even took a poke at the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, to the evident displeasure of Justice Alito.
It was, I thought, the speech of a confident and determined leader. He reminded us that when he promised change, he said it wouldn’t be easy to achieve. It sure hasn’t been, and won’t be.
Eugene Robinson, writing in the Washington Post, singled out the sentence that also struck me as the key to the speech and the presidency. "I don't quit."
I think he meant it. He has promises yet to keep.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.