A New York state of mind: Republicans are the party of Seinfeld while Obama channels Jeter…

New York’s former Mayor John Lindsay once reportedly said he “didn’t trust air he couldn’t see.” We’re raised to be that way in that part of the world.  As a rule we don’t spend much time fretting about the things we can’t see unless we’re seated with our back to the door in an Italian ...

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WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 09: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress at the U.S. Capitol with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R) behind him September 9, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama addressed the joint session to urge passage of his national health care plan, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. (Photo by Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images)

New York's former Mayor John Lindsay once reportedly said he "didn't trust air he couldn't see." We're raised to be that way in that part of the world.  As a rule we don't spend much time fretting about the things we can't see unless we're seated with our back to the door in an Italian restaurant.

Washington on the other hand is, for the most part, in the business of intangibles: Empty words, empty promises, speeches in the place of action, "sense of the Senate" resolutions, reading a crowd rather than sticking to principles.

New York’s former Mayor John Lindsay once reportedly said he “didn’t trust air he couldn’t see.” We’re raised to be that way in that part of the world.  As a rule we don’t spend much time fretting about the things we can’t see unless we’re seated with our back to the door in an Italian restaurant.

Washington on the other hand is, for the most part, in the business of intangibles: Empty words, empty promises, speeches in the place of action, “sense of the Senate” resolutions, reading a crowd rather than sticking to principles.

Today for instance, both pundits and real people are spending hours discussing whether Obama was sufficiently “presidential” last night, whether he had regained his campaign “magic” or whether he had changed the “national mood.” Most of that stuff gives me a nosebleed.

Of course, in these parts politicians prefer discussing things that can’t be measured because measurements tend to be so deflating, suggesting that their jobs are not about leadership or rhetoric but are rather about what and how much they get done. Also the real numbers don’t lie (unlike their statistical cousins) and so, if you lie for a living you learn to avoid them early on.

This explains a lot, notably why our national accounts never add up, why budget forecasts are always wrong, why official economic projections are seen as being a substance-less as Georgetown cocktail party conversation. Old Washington hands expect roughly the same thing from “we expect a turnaround in the fourth quarter” as they do from “let’s get together for lunch sometime.” 

It’s even why President Obama can get a lot of credit for a speech that was, to put it mildly, arithmetically challenged. To begin with “fraud, waste, and abuse” is neither a number nor even a measurable thing. It’s just a mythical creature that wanders the halls of the Congress year in and year out, much discussed but in reality untouchable and constantly growing. It’s certainly not a budget item you can line out to produce a measurable saving. Further, suddenly it was argued that we could provide coverage for the 45 million Americans without healthcare by providing it to only 30 million additional people. (When numbers suffer, so do absolute terms like “universal.”) Finally, it’s clear we ended up with a $900 billion proposal not because that was the sum total cost of all the reform we need but rather because it was not more than $1 trillion, which was considered a line that could not be crossed politically. It’s a sad thing when we start pricing much-needed transformational reforms the same way we do ladies’ shoes ($99.99 rather than $100. Which numbers bear as little relation to bills I have seen recently as do most Congressional budget projections to actual results.)

Having said that, I liked the President’s speech last night and thought it was very effective. It may have been too vague. It may not have been what you’d call mathematically rigorous. It also was not, to my way of thinking, even sufficiently broad in its proposed reforms. However, it was a serious effort at addressing a critical national concern. It contained a few key principles (extending coverage, combating abuse by insurance companies, seeking savings) and it embraced ideas from both political parties. 

It was not the soaring but empty rhetoric of the campaign trail nor was it delivered by a magical president, the man who the media had made into Lincoln before he had spent a day in office. Rather, for me it was a much more real and appealing Obama, a smart, earnest political leader attempting to produce a meaningful piece of legislation. Oh I understand all about meta-messages and zeitgeists and stature and all that, but what struck me was that we were witnessing an important part of the business of democracy, of struggling over the details, of cajoling even an abusive opposition to come along.

In short, while we can save for elsewhere a debate over the specifics of the health care legislation, he made a solid stand for rationality in the face of irrational opposition, for progress in the face of intransigence. He was a man at work rather than a heroic figure and he made his case both well and far better than any of his opponents have made theirs.

In fact, President Obama was aided in all this by those Republican opponents — as they have ceased to be the party of Lincoln and have become the party of Seinfeld, a party about nothing.

That may be consistent with the D.C. vacuousness I mentioned at the outset, but it looked callous and irresponsible to me last night. (I am not going to get into the issue of rudeness. It’s small potatoes. A kerfuffle in a teacup. These people are grown-ups. Neither party has cornered the market on idiots.)

No to me, Obama last night showed that he is maturing into the kind of workaday president that we need. His rhetoric was not just strong, it was purposeful. He looked to me like a man committed to getting this thing done. One day at a time. I believe he will and I believe when he does it will make it easier to move ahead on other issues like climate and energy. 

That kind of approach counts for a lot where I come from. It’s why I think while the Republicans are channeling Jerry and Elaine, Obama seems to be zeroing in on a better model (at least I hope he is) — the dependable, steady, grace-under-pressure approach that has put another New Yorker, Derek Jeter, center stage this week.

To conclude with an unrelated anecdote that ties Jeter’s Yankees to the Mayor Lindsay reference at the outset, and which seems to me to nicely contrast how Obama appeared last night versus how the Republicans did, there is always the famous story about Lindsay’s wife. She once remarked to Yogi Berra that he (like Obama) looked cool despite the heat. He responded (as though speaking to the Republican leadership), “You don’t look so hot yourself.”

Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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