If you've ever changed the location of a long-standing clock in your home or office, you know the effects of embedded mental-muscle-memory. It takes some time to stop looking to the old spot because your memory is so imprinted with its previous position.
So it is in Washington where a new president comes to town with a mind-set to move the clock, to change the established mental-muscle memory of our bi-polar politics. Last week, President Obama called for an end to "the petty grievances and false promises.....the recriminations and worn out dogmas....the time has come to set aside childish things."
Yes, indeed. Good words, but don't all new presidents start with an appeal for bi-partisan cooperation? It would help to see a sign, something that indicates there really is new memory being developed to go along with worthy intent.
So it came the following day. It was in response to the awkward misstep when Chief Justice John Roberts blew his lines to the presidential oath. Surely, many of us can sympathize with the enormous pressure of millions watching, judging. Surely, others of us, the ones with touches of OCD, found it really annoying. These were not exactly Jabberwocky gibberish words he had to learn. The do-over did help but still...
Then, there were those political party animals who reflexively pounced on it because that's what you do in Washington when the other kid stumbles. Case in point: the next day, Vice President Biden did his version of partisan trash-talk. With Obama looking on, he was asked to administer the oath to in-coming senior White House staff. Out of habit, he towel-snapped the Republican Chief Justice by dead-panning, "My memory's not as good as Chief Justice Roberts." Heh, heh. Some in the room laughed. Others groaned. But it was Obama's reaction that signaled a different tone in the air.
Look at the video. Watch Obama's non-verbal response to his vice-president's partisan elbow jab. Rather than reinforce D.C.'s gotcha zeitgeist, the president is definitely not amused. No laughter. Not even a smile. In fact, he's kind of grim-faced, as if to say to all, "No, people, that's not how I want to operate."
Whether it's good-natured needling or, too often, mean-spirited and personal, it's trash-talk mentality and it's been a significant part of our political soundtrack for decades - not exactly what you're looking for if you want to encourage cooperation in a company town.
To be sure, Obama's non-verbal response is a small sign, but an important one. It does suggest the clock has been moved. It would be revitalizing if our politicians could really adjust to the new location and create a different mental-muscle-memory for a new time.