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Published: Saturday, 1/30/2010

Obama shone; Alito didn't

BY ROSE RUSSELL

A FEW times during President Obama's State of the Union address, I wished I was sitting with Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Not so much to allow me an upfront view of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. The whole world saw Justice Alito's disagreement with the President when he denounced the high court's decision to allow corporations to fund political office seekers.

There's plenty to say about that issue, which we'll revisit in a moment. Meanwhile, I wanted to tap the President on the shoulder and say: "Excuse me, sir. You're not campaigning. You are the President now."

At the beginning of the address, he lapsed into campaign mode, acknowledging the crushing exasperation that plagues so many Americans.

"For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated; some are angry," he said.

That word "change" threw me back to the 2008 campaign. As he underscored America's ability and invincibility, he reminded me of a parent trying to be his or her children's friend. Not a good idea, and Mr. Obama is not our buddy.

But it didn't take long for Mr. Obama to address members of Congress and Americans as a president should: with authority and aplomb.

"From the day I took office, I've been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious, ... that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while.

"... How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold? ... Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse."

He said that other nations are "rebuilding their infrastructure. As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may become, it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth."

By the time the address was over, Americans had been informed and emboldened, and Congress duly admonished and instructed to get on the right path. President Obama accepted responsibility for his administration's shortcomings, but did not leave his party or its opponents unscathed.

"To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills," he said.

"And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."

With about 12 Democrats and 14 Republicans either retiring or planning to run for other offices, it must be getting pretty hot in Congress. But if bipartisan politics is to thrive, and it must, for the President's initiatives to be successful, Democrats have to do well in this fall's midterm elections.

Some anxiety remained as I recalled South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's notorious outburst during the President's address on health care to a joint session of Congress last September. I wondered who would abandon decorum and yell at the President.

Never would anyone have thought that a U.S. Supreme Court justice would show displeasure with a remark by the President, as Justice Alito did when he mouthed "not true" to Mr. Obama's criticism of the court ruling on corporations giving to campaigns.

"I can't ever recall a president taking a swipe at the Supreme Court like that," said Lucas A. Powe, Jr., a Supreme Court expert at the University of Texas law school.

However, Sen. Russell Feingold (D., Wis.) labeled the justice's response "inappropriate."

That's putting it nicely.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

Contact her at rrussell@theblade.com



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