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Right Back Where We Started

Posted: 08/24/11 05:43 PM ET

Ruth Marcus, a columnist for The Washington Post, said something rather curious to Jim Lehrer on a Friday, Aug. 19 episode of "PBS NewsHour."

"I thought the tour was very odd," Ms. Marcus said, referring to President Barack Obama's August bus tour through rural Midwestern America. She didn't like that the president announced that he was developing a new economic policy rather than using the tour to outline his plan. Fair enough. But it was her second point that I found puzzling:

Problem two, I thought, was when he started to sort of ramp up this argument against Congress, you know: I need your help to get this Congress to get off its -- and get something done.

Well, when President Truman ran against the do-nothing Congress, he had not promised the voters earlier that he was going to be able to make the Congress do something and that he was the guy who was going to be able to come to town and change all of this.

So, for the president now to be ramping up against a do-nothing Congress, I feel his frustration, but he did tell us he was the one who was going to be able on fix this broken political system that still turns out to be broken.

Let's put aside for a moment that when Harry Truman assumed the office of the presidency upon Franklin Roosevelt's passing, he had not campaigned for the job and so would not have told American voters very much about his plans for pursuing presidential power. What President Truman did say was that even a president needs help to achieve an agenda, particularly a great one.

"In performing the duties of my office, I need the help and prayers of every one of you," President Truman said in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1949, after he had defeated Governor Thomas Dewey and led Democrats to a national flogging of his era's do-nothings. Republicans lost nine seats in the Senate, ending their two-year majority of that chamber, and 75 seats in the House, more than erasing the gains they made in the 1946 midterms, when they swept to power amid widespread discontent with President Truman's handling of a wave of post-war labor strikes. In the months leading up to the 1946 Congressional races, President Truman's approval numbers fell down the basement stairs, settling at 32 percent -- perhaps somewhere near the boiler.

"I ask for your encouragement and your support," President Truman said. "The tasks we face are difficult, and we can accomplish them only if we work together."

Look at a "tag cloud" of President Obama's inaugural address, and you will see the words "people," "America," "every" and "jobs." If you look closely -- very closely -- you will see, in small type, words like "blood," "service" and "gift."

According to The New York Times, the word most frequently mentioned by the president was "nation," followed closely by "America," "people" and "work." What you don't see in these tag clouds, though, is the word "we," which is even more curious than Ms. Marcus' statement to the viewers of public television, because the president uttered the word "we" in his inaugural address no fewer than 62 times. He used the word "nation," on the other hand, 15 times. "Work"? Eight, or nine if you throw in "workers."

President Obama campaigned on the message "Change We Can Believe In" and, later, "Change We Need." Exactly 69,456,897 Americans -- nearly 53 percent of the electorate in 2008 -- voted for that "change," a change, it seems seldom remembered now, that requires something from us all.

As the poet Pablo Neruda said upon accepting the Nobel Prize in literature, "Our original guiding stars are struggle and hope. But there is no such thing as a lone struggle, no such thing as a lone hope."

It is debatable -- and, lately, frequently debated -- how big a bully pulpit any president actually has. But on that cold January day, when the president uttered the word "we" no fewer than 62 times, 1.8 million people were in attendance. Another 37.8 million Americans tuned in -- the largest television audience since Ronald Reagan's first inauguration in 1981. An additional 21 million people streamed the event on CNN alone. Millions more watched from around the world.

"We," it now seems, has been forgotten. But though the ways of forgetting are many, forgetting is seldom forever.

Like President Truman, President Obama now faces the do-nothing 112th Congress. Republicans have revealed themselves to be so recalcitrant, so unyielding and so completely committed to the president's defeat at all costs that voters are now being forced to come to grips with just how divorced from the concerns of the American people the Republican Party has become.

As Jonathan Chait wrote in response to a recent column by Ms. Marcus' colleague Charles Krauthammer:

[T]he circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Republicans have decided they'd rather defeat Obama than agree to a compromise that might benefit him politically while advancing their agenda. The economic consensus overwhelmingly holds that looser money and fiscal stimulus are the appropriate policy response to the Great Recession. In 2001, when we had a Republican president and a much less dire economic emergency, Republicans demanded looser money and more stimulus. They have undergone an intellectual conversion at a time that makes very little sense given economic circumstances but a great deal of sense given the partisan circumstances.

President Obama should continue reminding voters of his original message of shared purpose and shared responsibility. His bus tour was a good start. As we approach the 2012 campaign in earnest, complete with the memory of Republicans passionately battling each other for the privilege of dragging the nation toward default, it's a message many Americans are likely to welcome. It might even seem like déjà vu.