Off the beat: The petulant president and the philosopher-king

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The United States’ reigning lecturer in residence revealed to the nation last week not so much the state of the union as the condition of his own beleaguered Confucian paternalism when he delivered his annual address from the Capitol.

Ever since stubborn Republican paranoia and inept Democratic salesmanship conspired to swipe the political triumph of Obamacare from President Barack Obama’s grasp in 2010, year after year of imploring supplication for legislative action — rather than concrete effort to put pressure on Congress — has characterized the Obama administration’s approach to heating up glacially slow politics in Washington.

But the faint hope Obama previously held for collaboration with Congress was ominously absent Tuesday night. Now, the president warned Congress, he’ll go it alone — Barack Obama is getting out of politics.

“I’m eager to work with all of you,” the president patronizingly told Congress in his annual State of the Union address. “But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

To paraphrase: Cooperation is dead, the victim of a paralyzed legislature and an apolitical president.

To be fair, the troubles of a nation can’t possibly be attributed to the curious standoffishness of one man. Congress, it turns out, passed fewer bills in 2013 than were passed in any other legislative session since the statistic was first recorded in 1947. That beats even Harry Truman’s notorious “Do Nothing” Congress, if you were keeping score.

But now, after the State of the Union, it’s clear the disease of uncompromising partisanism has spread even to the White House, under a president who in 2008 told Steve Kroft from “60 Minutes,” in a comment that appears increasingly delusional, “One of the things I’m good at is getting people in a room with a bunch of different ideas who sometimes violently disagree with each other and finding common ground and a sense of common direction.”

What the president did not know in 2008, and apparently still has not learned, is politicians do not respond to good-willed arbitration and peace-making. They respond to incentives, to public political pressures and threats. American politics has never been a shelter for idealists, Obama included.

The president could afford to follow the example of UC Berkeley alumnus and Speaker of the California State Assembly John Perez. Unlike the president, Perez knows how to find common ground and direction because he’s willing to play politics.

I remember watching him work the Assembly floor as an intern in the state Legislature last summer, trying to push through a controversial bill to overhaul the state’s burdensome and outdated enterprise zone law. The bill, which required a hefty two-thirds majority to pass, was a few votes short on a muggy Thursday afternoon in Sacramento. With legislators eager to get back to their districts for the weekend and Perez presiding, he announced a floor session for Friday. And Saturday. And Sunday.

Needless to say, he got the votes. See you Monday.

It’s worth noting that some of the most productive Congresses in history — the Congressional sessions that produced Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation in the 1960s — took their activist approach under the leadership of a man who was known for making understated political threats and aggressively browbeating subordinates while in the U.S. Senate.

Of course, this isn’t a call to Machiavellianism — Nixon and Kissinger proved politicians without hearts are no blend to be trifled with. But what Johnson proved is that it’s possible to play shrewd hardball in American politics without sacrificing the idealism and integrity that beckons leaders like Johnson into public service in the first place (collective failures like Vietnam aside).

In his Republic, the philosopher Plato presents a vision of the ideal leader that decidedly differs from Confucius’ understanding of leadership by example. Rather than concentrate on good living alone and expect others to follow, Plato proposed that enlightened philosophers plunge back into the dark cave of everyday political bickering to show others the light.

What the country needs is not some distant, holy mountain-top sage to merely occupy the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue and lecture errant legislators but rather a sort of philosopher-king who — though certainly a clever thinker — will actually descend back into Plato’s proverbial cave and prove to legislators and the American people which shapes are shadows and which are laws worth passing.

Of course, Barack Obama is no philosopher-king. But he might learn a thing or two from Plato.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.