Gwen’s Take: When Sending Signals Matters, When It Doesn’t

BY Gwen Ifill  February 11, 2011 at 8:57 PM EDT

House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor strolled out onto the White House lawn after lunch with the president this week to deliver an upbeat and focused message to the reporters gathered there.

“I thought it was pretty clear today that the president wants to try to find some common ground with us,” Boehner said.

“The economy so desperately needs us to work together to send a signal that we should start growing again as America,” Cantor said.

Both of these formulations were carefully thought out, and everyone stayed exactly on message. After all, no matter how much you disagree with the president of the United States, it looks unnecessarily surly to hammer away at him on his front porch right after you’ve been at his table.

The president offered a similar show of bonhomie earlier in the week when he sauntered across Lafayette Park with a few aides to the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Setting aside for the morning the cold hard fact that the Chamber had spent tens of millions of dollars last year helping Republicans take back control of the House, the president was all sweetness and light. He, too, had signals to send.

“We have to renew people’s faith in the promise of this country, that this is a place where you can make it if you try,” the president said cheerily.

This was the week where both sides papered over their differences. They agree on trade and innovation. There will be plenty of time to poke at the sore spots over health care and spending and abortion. For now, Democrats and Republicans seem to realize that American impatience with Washington’s dithering ways has reached its peak.

But when cast against the backdrop of dramatic events in Egypt, the Washington wallpaper begins to look kind of beside the point. This week’s events in Tahrir Square were more dramatic than any movie script and certainly more riveting than any Washington debate.

Would Mubarak go? Would he stay? “We are witnessing history unfold,” President Obama declared on Thursday only to watch in reported astonishment hours later as Mubarak announced he would not leave.

Egypt’s vice president told the crowds to go home, but thousands more arrived – all louder and angrier than before. By late Thursday, the Obama administration stepped up its game and issued a stern statement siding with the protesters. And finally, with nowhere left to turn, Mubarak let the reins of power slip through his hands.

There is no question that politics as usual cannot be expected to hold a candle to the truly consequential dominoes knocking one other down in the Middle East. Bipartisanship and happy cooperation may be much desired, but they do not yield ecstatic live video of street protests.

Lesson learned. Democracy can be chaotic, messy and sometimes boring. We can only be certain that in Washington, as in Cairo, the fight never really ends.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.