Not counting the media and public at large, his audience can be divided in at least two easy ways. One is Senate vs House of Representatives, and I've recently written how that could be made into a useful distinction. The other, more obvious division, is between Republicans and Democrats.
I'm sure Obama will pay lots of lip service to bipartisanship, and I'm equally sure that nobody — not the Republicans, Democrats, media or public — will believe it. We've seen that movie before. But a recent comment on NPR made me wonder why we care so much about bipartisanship, anyway.
A couple weeks ago, a guest on WBUR's Here and Now made an intersting point about the recent Congressional hearings about the financial crisis:
I'm torn about that "ten people having questions" thing. Because it's clearly a smart bunch of people on the committee, and the fact that they have different viewpoints isn't necessarily a bad thing; but the hearings this week have caused me to go back and read the transcripts of the Pujo and Pakora [financial] hearings [of 1912 and 1932, respectively] ... it was basically one person asking the vast majority of questions, and it was almost handled like a prosecution. And the witnesses kept having to come back day after day until they'd satisfied the prosecutor.
The difficulty here is if it stays this sort of "oh, we must be bipartisan, and we must let everyone ask questions," then you miss that opportunity to really go in depth and really figure out what was going on in certain aspects of the financial system over the past couple years.
—Justin Fox, editor at large at Time magazine
There's a lot to be said for using democracy to decide who has power, and then more or less leaving that government to govern how it see fits. Fox lays out the benefits of that approach, and the example goes beyond just Congressional hearings. From drafting legislative goals to penning the specifics of each law, too many chefs can ruin the stew.
To some degree, that's the point of our partisan system. The idea is that by slowing down the process and forcing people to average out their ideologies, we manage to avoid the bad extremes (even if it's at the cost of avoiding the good extremes, too). The problem is that, as the early years of the Bush administration demonstrated, extremes are actually still very much reachable. Meanwhile, every bill ends up hacked, watered down and compromised.
I've long been a huge advocate of bipartisanship, but Fox's point made me realize that the real goal isn't bipartisanship for its own sake; it's moderate and intelligent policy decisions. We can achieve those with 50%+1 votes in the legislature, even when those votes are strictly along party lines, if our legislators are smart and open-minded.
The majority party should be willing — even eager — to seize on the minority's best ideas and implement them, taking all the credit. The minority party should be equally vigilant in identifying which of the majority party's ideas are good, and accepting them. That will do a lot more good for the country than continuing our system of polarized and closed-minded lawmakers, with the occasional bone thrown to the opposition for the sake of 60 votes.
So tonight, Obama shouldn't promise to get the Republicans on board with his health care. He should rile up the Democrats with an inspiring, exhaustive plan that gives liberals everything they want — and also steals the Republicans' best ideas, including tort reform. And the legislature should argue it, yell about it, and pass it without filibuster.