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Can Obama overcome D.C.'s partisan poison?

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Fri September 9, 2011
John Avlon says a fired up President Obama was appealing to the middle class and small businesses.
John Avlon says a fired up President Obama was appealing to the middle class and small businesses.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Obama's speech was full of policy specifics
  • He says Obama smartly adopted policies with bipartisan support
  • Avlon: Will that be enough to overcome Washington's hyperpartisanship?
  • He says voters' message should be: Stop fighting, start fixing

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- In a call to action on the American economy, President Obama entered a deeply divided U.S. Capitol on Thursday to propose a decidedly bipartisan package of policies backed with an urgent message: "Pass this bill now."

The address before a joint session of Congress was greeted with now-routine hyperpartisan skepticism, even before its contents were announced. But this was not a windy inspirational speech; instead it was a direct policy appeal full of specifics.

The biggest takeaway is that all the major policies the president proposed were rooted in past bipartisan support. That good faith effort to bridge the deep partisan divides in Washington deserves something more than predictable spin -- and, in turn, the American people deserve some concerted action on the economy from Congress.

There were flashes of clear common ground. Among the policy proposals greeted with rare bursts of cross-aisle applause were proposals to form a public-private infrastructure bank, cut the corporate tax rate while closing loopholes, pass free trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, and institute tax incentives for corporations to hire veterans returning home from war.

John Avlon
John Avlon

The Infrastructure Bank is emblematic of the opportunity at hand. There is already bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate, backed by Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry and Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. Its supporters include such unlikely allies as the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. By leveraging $10 billion in federal money as seed loans -- not grants -- the bank is expected to generate up to $600 billion in economic activity, putting people to work at projects that will strengthen communities for decades to come. Critics might cry crony-capitalism, but this is as close as Washington gets to a win-win.

To be sure, there were plenty of areas of difference, where Democrats applauded while Republicans sat on their hands, and vice-versa. The president promised that the plan would be paid for by further cuts and a combination of tax reform and entitlement reforms. The devil will be in the details. The Joint Super-Committee was challenged to increase its own savings mandate from $1.5 trillion as part of that effort, but President Obama also announced that his administration would be putting forward an ambitious deficit reduction plan as a way of encouraging action and framing the debate.

He'll need to put forward an equally bold and bipartisan deficit reduction proposal, because the American Job Creation Act's estimated $450 billion price tag will provoke some rote "Stimulus II" criticism, and independent voters in particular have wised up to the fact that throwing federal money at a problem doesn't solve it.

Significantly, the president also spoke of the need to reform Medicare spending as a way of preserving the long-term strength of the system -- a necessity he acknowledged might alienate liberals, but in the process echoing conservative arguments to such an extent that Sen. Lindsey Graham was moved to stand up and applaud.

Any observer of the debt ceiling dysfunction over the summer would not get over-excited about the possibility of rational cooperation breaking out in Congress. Nonetheless, it was hopeful and heartening to hear both House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor acknowledge in interviews after the speech that there was room to work together on some of these proposals.

The current atmosphere is so poisonous and polarized that some Democrats were wondering whether Republicans would even oppose extending payroll tax cuts simply because they came from this president, a concern that Obama even joked about. But that level of cynicism will end up backfiring on Republicans. As weak as the president's poll numbers are, he is still much more popular than either Republicans or Democrats in Congress.

The audience for this speech wasn't just the assembled members of Congress -- it was the squeezed middle class and struggling small businesses that feel forgotten by Washington and frustrated by the overwhelming influence of special interests. Their anger at both big business and big government is one of the defining dynamics of our political time. A fired up President Obama persuasively made the case that inaction in the face of such economic uncertainty was itself an unacceptable cost.

"The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy," the president asked. The answer will be determined by the follow through in this divided government. The common ground has been defined; now it is the obligation of Congress to build upon it. Their willingness to do so will be determined by whether they hear from frustrated constituents wielding a simple message: Stop fighting and start fixing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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