Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bring out the bully pulpit, Mr. President!

Being told to “man up” by the right and “come out of the closet” by The New York Times expresses a common complaint about the Obama presidency: Why doesn’t he use the office and his eloquence to lead change and get Washington to move?

Columnist Maureen Dowd put it bitterly:

“As a community organizer, Obama developed impressive empathetic gifts. But now he is misusing them. It’s not enough to understand how everybody in the room thinks. You have to decide which ones in the room are right, and stand with them. A leader is not a mediator or an umpire or a convener or a facilitator.” 

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Campaign strategist Karl Rove, looking for a reason for Republicans to not worry about Obama’s campaigning abilities, put it differently:

“Finally, Mr. Obama has made a strategic blunder. While he needs to raise money and organize, he decided to be a candidate this year rather than president. He has thus unnecessarily abandoned one of incumbency's great strengths, which is the opportunity to govern and distance himself from partisan politics until next spring.”

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We cannot know for sure whether Obama’s low-key style has contributed to the relative civility of public discourse recently and the startlingly peaceful advance of gay rights this year and whether audacious change would be happening on many other fronts, if only he spoke up more often. Nevertheless, the bully pulpit—the inherent power of the Office of the president to heard—is of limited value and can be counterproductive.

A good president will try to speak for all the people, but will not be heard by all the people the same way.

Unless it’s an emergency and the public is already clamoring in the same direction, a president can’t change things with words unless he can mediate and facilitate as well. If a president claims an issue as his own, he’ll likely be left alone with it.

It’s disingenuous to suggest that if Obama was more Olympian and a touch less partisan he’d be more effective. Congressional Republicans leaders have responded in strident partisan terms to almost everything Obama has said in Washington—from the midst of the financial crisis to now. (Okay, they were gracious about his remarks at the memorial funeral service in Tucson.) Before the ink was dry, healthcare was labelled “Obamacare,” despite a year of compromises and its bi-partisan features.

Republicans will not support any action that serves Obama’s partisan interests unless it serves theirs as well.

A president needn’t be a mute, however. In fact, confrontational rhetoric can make his presidency more effective, as well as improving his chances of being re-elected.

Obama’s direct attack on Paul Ryan’s budget plan “A Road map for America’s Future” is one sure reason why Republicans are trying so diligently to secure a multi-trillion dollar spending reduction agreement this summer. They complained that his speech at George Town University was partisan and “demagogic” in insisting that a health vouch system could not guarantee universal medical care for seniors. They ran television commercials to defend themselves. Now, they’re desperate to make a deal with the White House on entitlements rather than carry Ryan’s plan into next year’s election. 

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