Newton’s First Law tells us objects stay at rest or continue in motion if nothing changes, an apt description of this year in American politics: an inert Congress and a careening GOP presidential race that keeps dropping former frontrunners off the turnip truck.
This was not the kind of Change Barack Obama had in mind when he was elected, but he has now gone through three years of pushing legislation against wall-to-wall GOP resistance that hardened into stone after the 2010 Tea Party takeover of the House.
As he starts to campaign for reelection, the President will have to persuade voters that inertia in American life has always worked both ways, as a deterrent to progress, to be sure, but also as a brake to driving off a cliff in the passions of the moment, a delicate balancing act.
In John Boehner and Newt Gingrich, if nominated, he will have twin symbols of what’s wrong in American politics now, both kinds of inertia gone berserk.
Barack Obama will have to counter such ugly Newtonian mindlessness by going back to the wisdom of Emerson and Thoreau, with an ethos of American individualism that now seems like a message from another planet.
"All our progress is an unfolding," said Emerson, "like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit."
"How vain it is to sit down to write," Thoreau added, "when you have not stood up to live."
Telling Americans to stop and think may be a hard sell in the era of instant bloviating with a flood of 24/7 certainty on every subject, but it may be the only way to get the nation off a path to self-destruction.