The Empty Bully Pulpit

How did we get into this mess?

I thought I’d seen Washington at its worst. I was there just after Watergate. I was there when Jimmy Carter imploded. I was there during the government shut-down of 1995.

But I hadn’t seen the worst. This is the worst.

How can it be that with over 9 percent unemployment, essentially no job growth, widening inequality, falling real wages, and an economy that’s almost dead in the water — we’re locked in a battle over how to cut the budget deficit?

Part of the answer is a Republican Party that’s the most irresponsible and rigidly ideological I’ve ever witnessed.

Part of the answer is the continuing gravitational pull of the Great Recession.

But another part of the answer lies with the President — and his inability or unwillingness to use the bully pulpit to tell Americans the truth, and mobilize them for what must be done.

Barack Obama is one of the most eloquent and intelligent people ever to grace the White House, which makes his failure to tell the story of our era all the more disappointing and puzzling. Many who were drawn to him in 2008 (including me) were dazzled by the power of his words and insights — his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, his autobiography and subsequent policy book, his talks about race and other divisive issues during the campaign.

We were excited by the prospect of a leader who could educate — an “educator in chief” who would use the bully pulpit to explaini what has happened to the United States in recent decades, where we must go, and why.

But the man who has occupied the Oval Office since January, 2009 is someone entirely different — a man seemingly without a compass, a tactician who veers rightward one day and leftward the next, an inside-the Beltway dealmaker who doesn’t explain his comprises in light of larger goals.

In his inaugural address, Obama warned that “the nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” In private, he professes to understand that the growing concentration of income and wealth at the top has robbed the middle class of the purchasing power it needs to keep the economy going. And it has distorted our politics.

He is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home values, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining real wages — a decrease in consumption that’s directly responsible for the anemic recovery.

But instead of explaining this to the American people, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit, and enters into a hair-raising game of chicken with House Republicans over whether the debt ceiling will be raised.

Never once does he tell the public why reducing the deficit has become his number one economic priority. Americans can only conclude that the Republicans must be correct — that diminishing the deficit will somehow revive economic growth and restore jobs.

Instead of powerful explanations we get the type of bromides that issue from every White House. America must “win the future,” Obama says, by which he means making public investments in infrastructure, education, and basic R&D. But then he submits a budget proposal that would cut nondefense discretionary spending (of which these investments constitute more than half) to its lowest level as a share of gross domestic product in over half a century.

A president can be forgiven for compromising, if his supporters understand why he is doing so. That the health-care law doesn’t include a public option, that financial reform doesn’t limit the size of the biggest Wall Street banks, even that cuts may have to be made to Medicare or Social Security — all could be accepted in light of the practical necessities of politics, if only we understood where the President is leading us.

Why is Obama not using the bully pulpit? Perhaps he’s too embroiled in the tactical maneuvers that pass for policy making in Washington, or too intent on preserving political capital for the next skirmish, or cynical about how the media will relay or distort his message. He may also disdain the repetition necessary to break through the noise and drive home the larger purpose of his presidency. I have known (and worked for) presidents who succumbed to all these, at least for a time.

A more disturbing explanation is that he simply lacks the courage to tell the truth. He wants most of all to be seen as a responsible adult rather than a fighter. As such, he allows himself to be trapped by situations — the debt-ceiling imbroglio most recently — within which he tries to offer reasonable responses, rather than be the leader who shapes the circumstances from the start.

Obama cannot mobilize America around the truth, in other words, because he is continuously adapting to the prevailing view. This is not leadership.

[I wrote this for the American Prospect] – This column was taken from Robert Reich’s Blog


  1. Susan Cain says

    I, too, was originally mesmerized by Obama's eloquence and his seeming understanding of the average American's heart and mind. My opinion is that Obama could have been an extremely effective leader and a real changer of American policy for the better had he stayed out of politics and been a social leader as Martin Luther King, Jr. There is no hope for real change in our current two-party system where both major parties serve corporate interests above the citizen's. Politics is merely an endless tennis match, slapping words back and forth like a ball… and the winner of this match is the politician who gets himself elected with these words. Washington puts on a "reality show" for their constituents… a meaningless game of plotting and back-stabbing to win a seat in congress or the presidency. Once the battle is won, the game begins again. The result is political wins and huge losses for the public. Instead of rejecting these games, the public participates in all the distracting arguments. Like mindless sheep, they follow wherever the angry, empty and inconsequential words of the politicians take them. They refuse to use common sense and open their eyes to the games our "leaders" play with us. Obama has become just another political tennis player, afraid to do what is right for this country for fear that he might not win re-election. It is that simple. The office means more to him (and all of our other "representatives") than serving the public as they should.

  2. Desmond O'Toole says

    I am not one of those progressives who was ever taken in by the superficial and vacuous rhetoric of Obama the candidate. I always saw him as just another liberal-conservative speaking to an idea of America that has long since possessed any real power. Obama the president has demonstrated the limits of liberal-conservative politics, both in the domestic and global arena. It's not a reborn Obama that the US needs but a new politics of solidarity, equal citizenship and social justice.

    Desmond O'Toole

    PES activists Dublin.