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Obama Must Reframe The Debate

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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth-generated news throughout the globe.

By: Will Nelligan

In just a few hours, President Obama follows in the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and - dare I say it - George W. Bush in delivering his State of the Union message to Congress. It will be a significant one; not only because it is the first of this young presidency, or the first delivered by a black man in the history of this young country, but because it is the President's opportunity to galvanize the country, reframe his agenda, and set out a new course for the year.

And let's be honest, we truly need it. Unemployment is rising, troop numbers are surging, health care legislation is failing, and the country is tangibly more frustrated than it was even over a year ago, under a markedly less competent Commander-in-Chief. Tonight, President Obama has to do one of the things he has done best throughout his political career: reframe the conversation, and through that, Democratic strategy for 2010.

I wrote earlier this week that I think President Obama needs to awaken his inner "LBJ," his inner ability to wage political battle on a level with which the Republicans can't even compete. He must cease to be compromising, and instead be forceful, strong-willed, and strategic; he must cease to be respectful of other agendas, and instead be uniquely attentive to his own and that of his party; and finally, he must cease his attempts at cajoling moderate Republicans into supporting Democratic legislation, and instead focus time and energy around moving the important issues facing the country forward, Republican support or not.

Yes, I know, this is a hard political strategy to follow with - now, 41 - Republican senators. A lot of hay is being made of the fact that our party no longer has a filibuster-proof majority, and that is an unchallengeable reality. At the same time, it seems to me that a line needs to be drawn in the executive sandbox between promoting bipartisanship and compromising key Democratic issues into oblivion. President Johnson understood this line better than almost anybody in recent memory; Johnson was willing to sit down with anyone from any party, always willing to listen and talk over particular pieces of particular legislation. At the same time, at the end of the day, he was certainly willing to do what he did best, push forward legislation he believed the country needed. And push it hard.

Johnson was known for using the presidential yacht in these endeavors. There is a story out there that says, during key discussions around the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson took some moderate Democrats and Republicans out on his boat, anchored it several miles out to sea, turned to his guests and said, "we're not going anywhere until we all agree." I'm not suggesting Obama go this far (can you imagine Joe Scarborough and Mike Bresinsky in a inflatable skiff racing towards a Navy destroyer parked in the middle of the Potomac), rather, I think the President needs to reframe more than the debate tonight; he needs to reframe his definition of compromise, and his understanding of how to achieve on a Presidential level.

As I write this, millions of Americans go without health care, without pay, without an education. It is a moral imperative that our government do something to improve access to health care, remunerative jobs, and educational opportunities, and President Obama needs to make it his imperative to ensure Congress does just that. It will not be easy in the age of 24-hour cable commentary and coverage and debate, but if Lyndon Johnson could pass the Civil Rights Act through segregationist blocs and low public approval, we should today be able to bring a new population of Americans into the light; either with broad Republican support, or with no Republican support at all.

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