The Empty Bully Pulpit

The president’s compromises might be understandable—if only Obama would explain where he’s leading us.

Robert B. Reich | July 27, 2011


Barack Obama is one of the most intelligent and eloquent people to grace the White House, which makes his abject failure to tell the story of our era all the more disappointing. Many who were drawn to him in 2008 were dazzled by the power of his words—his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, his autobiography and subsequent policy book, his insights about race and other divisive issues during the campaign—and were excited by the prospect of an “educator in chief” who would use the bully pulpit to explain what has happened to the United States in recent decades and to mobilize Americans to do what must be done.

The Empty Bully PulpitBut 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 deal-maker who does not explain his compromises in light of larger goals. Americans have no idea why we’re still in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that Osama bin Laden has been killed and most of the remaining leadership of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan.

More critically, Americans are deeply confused about the economy. 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 vast middle class of the purchasing power it needs to keep the economy going. He is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home value, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining wages—a decrease in consumption that is directly responsible for the anemic recovery. But he doesn’t explain this to the American people or attempt to mobilize them around a vision of what should be done.

Instead, even as unemployment rises to 9.2 percent and at least 14 million people look for work, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit over the next decade 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 No. 1 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 any White House. America must “win the future,” Obama says, by which he means making public investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development. 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. 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, that the NSA is still spying on Americans, even that cuts may have to be made to Medicare or Social Security—all are worrisome.

But these concessions might be understandable 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 no longer trusts that Americans will hear him. Whatever the reason—that he’s embroiled in the tactical maneuvers that pass for policy-making, or intent on preserving political capital for the next skirmish, or cynical about how the media will relay or distort his message—he doesn’t try. He may also disdain the repetition necessary to break through the noise and drive home the larger purpose of his presidency.

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. He cannot mobilize Americans around the truth, in other words, because he is continuously adapting to the prevailing view. That’s not what Americans thought they were getting when they elected Obama president.

photoRobert B. Reich, a co-founder of The American Prospect, is a Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His website can be found here and his blog can be found here. Click here to read more about Reich.