A campaign theme takes shape

President Obama spoke yesterday in Holland, Michigan, at a Johnson Controls plant, and delivered a noteworthy speech that was largely drowned out by other political developments. Of particular interest was the subtle emergence of a campaign theme.

The president noted that the economy looked to be improving in 2010, until it ran into “events beyond our control”: unrest in the Middle East sent oil prices soaring; European debt crises rattled global markets; tragedies in Japan, etc. All of this is (a) true, and (b) intended to reinforce the fact that Obama shouldn’t get the blame for developments he can’t affect.

And then there’s Washington.

“Now, challenges like these — earthquakes, revolutions — those are things we can’t control. But what we can control is our response to these challenges. What we can control is what happens in Washington. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen in Washington the last few months has been the worst kind of partisanship, the worst kind of gridlock — and that gridlock has undermined public confidence and impeded our efforts to take the steps we need for our economy. It’s made things worse instead of better.

“So what I want to say to you, Johnson Controls, is: There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics. There’s something wrong with our politics that we need to fix.”

The president is in the process of re-diagnosing what ails us, which is challenging but interesting. In this model, the economy is struggling badly, but that’s a symptom of a larger disease — policymakers are fully capable of addressing this and other problems if our politics weren’t so badly broken.

The unstated point is redirecting blame: don’t blame one person or one piece of legislation for what frustrates you; blame those who won’t cooperate, won’t work in good faith, won’t try to solve problems. And given the most recent polls, Americans making this judgment will blame the wildly unpopular Republican Party.

With this in mind, Obama went on to note we’ve seen officials who act as it “winning the next election is more important than fulfilling our responsibilities to you and to our country”; we’ve seen a downgrade coming as the result of “Washington” lacking “the capacity to come together and get things done”; we’ve seen good ideas languish on Capitol Hill because of “the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party. There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win — and that has to stop.”

I especially enjoyed hearing this advice for Congress: “Stop sending out press releases. Start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now.” (Speaker Boehner responded by sending out a press release.)

Obama concluded:

“You know, America voted for divided government. And that makes it tough. You got one party controlling the House of Representatives, another party controlling the Senate. So you voted for divided government. But you didn’t vote for dysfunctional government. You didn’t vote for a do-nothing government. You didn’t vote for a government where folks are just looking out for special interests. You didn’t vote for a government that is beholden to lobbyists.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and the only way we will get it done is if everybody, Democrats and Republicans, find a way to put country ahead of party. That’s what I’m fighting for. I’m here to enlist you in that fight. You’ve got to hold everybody accountable, because if we can come together and find common ground, there is no stopping the United States of America. There is no holding us back. We can strengthen this economy, and we can put our nation back to work. And we can lead the world in growing industries. And we will make it through these economic storms and reach calmer waters stronger than we were before.”

And if we don’t, we’ll know to blame those who pushed for dysfunctional, do-nothing government and refused to put country ahead of party.

It’s not a bad message, and I suspect we’ll be hearing more of it as the leading GOP presidential candidates push the nation’s needs ever lower on their priority list.