By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, February 23, 2009
AKRON, Ohio -- When President Obama addresses the nation tomorrow, he should not be distracted by Washington's obsessions over partisanship and ideology. He needs, above all, to speak to the country's raw fear.
In our battered industrial heartland, there is also a strong sentiment that the president should disentangle himself from Washington as much as possible, hard as that may be for a man who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. His obligation is to be the nation's leader, not the capital's ringmaster. It's a message he's already received, judging from his schedule in recent days.
"He needs to get out among the people more and get away from the White House," said Mike O'Connor, president of the United Steelworkers Local 7 at the Bridgestone Firestone plant here. Asked for his advice to the man for whom he walked precincts last fall, O'Connor added: "Don't separate yourself from the streets where people are feeling the worst effects of the downturn."
And when it comes to bipartisanship, the point is not the numerical count of Republicans who vote for this or that. It's whether frightened citizens sense that government is working.
"People want the basic stuff fixed," said state Rep. Vernon Sykes, a Democrat who chairs the Finance and Appropriations Committee in the Ohio House. "They don't have a romantic notion of bipartisanship. They just want people to come together to solve problems."
Obama's speech, according to his lieutenants, will be another effort to make clear that he understands how bad the situation is while also conveying hope and assurance that prosperity lies at the other end of his policies. This complicated two-step has become the greatest rhetorical challenge of his presidency. Empty optimism would look out of touch, but unalloyed pessimism would only deepen the loss of confidence that is, itself, a cause of the downturn.
Obama intends to argue that the crisis underscores the urgency of his core domestic priorities: to repair the health system, improve education and promote energy efficiency. The stimulus battle will turn out to be a prelude, not a climax.
Recent polling offers two pieces of evidence suggesting that the sentiments from Akron are widespread. For all the talk of the failure of bipartisanship, it turns out that a significant number of Republicans agreed with Obama on the stimulus.
A recent Gallup poll found that 28 percent of Republicans supported the stimulus. While this number was dwarfed by the 82 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents who favored the package, it was a healthy number in light of how partisan the debate in Congress became.
Moreover, in the week after Obama began to campaign hard around the country for the stimulus, overall support for the package rose from 52 percent to 59 percent. Administration officials have taken notice. Count on this to be a road-trip presidency.
There is, as well, this rather unexpected form of bipartisanship: Many Republican members of Congress who voted against the stimulus are now taking credit for the money it is sending into their districts. In this case, hypocrisy may be the greatest form of flattery.
But such partisan games seem beside the point when headlines on local papers are typified by Thursday's banner in the Akron Beacon Journal: "Goodyear to Cut Jobs." It was not clear how many of them would come out of this city, once popularly seen as the rubber industry's capital, but the company envisions a loss of nearly 5,000 jobs.
And that is why conversations here about Obama and the economy constantly returned to the word "fear." It is a word that works both ways for Obama. Sykes, for example, said that fear means that many grass-roots Republicans are rooting for Obama's success because "they really want this thing to work."
Joseph Kanfer, the chief executive of GOJO Industries, which pioneered Purell hand sanitizers, said he admired Obama's emphasis on experimentation. "I think everybody agrees that nobody really knows what to do, so it's really reassuring to know that he's taking an experimental attitude."
But Kanfer worries that if the downturn persists, "people will say, 'Give me somebody who knows the answer.' "
"When people get really frustrated," he went on, "they really want answers more than reason."
And then Kanfer acknowledged that he was taken aback by what he had just said.
For a president who mistrusts the passions and reveres cool reason, it was a timely warning on the eve of the most important speech of his young presidency.