The bully pulpit has become a contentious issue among progressives with some progressives contending that President Obama has failed to use the bully pulpit:
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.Some partisan progressives, however, go so far as to suggest that the bully pulpit doesn't exist except in the imaginations of a certain segment of the left.
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. ...
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.
Of course, the bully pulpit is merely conceptual in nature, but it has become a well-accepted concept since its introduction into the common parlance by Teddy Roosevelt:
An older term within the U.S. Government, a bully pulpit is a public office or other position of authority of sufficiently high rank that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter. The bully pulpit can bring issues to the forefront that were not initially in debate, due to the office's stature and publicity.
This term was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to the White House as a "bully pulpit," by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda. Roosevelt famously used the word bully as an adjective meaning "superb" or "wonderful" (a more common expression in his time than it is today).
It seems sort of silly to argue that the President doesn't have the capacity to deliver his message. If he wants to get the attention of the media all he has to do is whistle. Well, okay, he just has to walk down the hall to the press room where a gaggle of press people wait to write down his every word, take pictures and video to deliver to 24 hour, all news all the time networks who will discuss it endlessly.
Heck, if the President decides to go somewhere, the same gaggle will dutifully follow him around and hang on his every word. The news folks will pretty much jump through hoops to get access to the President. Steven Colbert in his White House Correspondent's Dinner speech explained it:
But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!So with the President able to trade access for favorable treatment by the press, one wonders how it is that President Obama seems to get outmaneuvered so often in the media.
Here's a recent example that really leaves me scratching my head. Last year the administration proposed updating some child labor regulations that apply to children employed on farms that would have prevented children from working on the most dangerous farm jobs. About 400,000 children work on farms that are not owned by family members, many of these child laborers are children of migrant farmworkers whose families need the income. The fatality rate for child farm workers is four times higher than that of nonagricultural child workers, according to the Labor Department.
The administration got a lot of pushback from Republicans and assorted farm groups and significantly revised the rules to adjust to their demands. For example, the administration created an exemption for children on farms owned or operated by family members of child laborers.
Despite the accomodations made by the administration, the narrative that the regulations would kill family farms was boldly promoted by agricultural groups and Republicans. Sarah Palin even got into the act:
If I Wanted America to Fail, I’d Ban Kids From Farm WorkSarah Palin and others put bald-faced falsehoods in writing and the administration failed to fight back. Why?
by Sarah Palin on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at 11:27am ·
The Obama Administration is working on regulations that would prevent children from working on our own family farms. This is more overreach of the federal government with many negative consequences. And if you think the government’s new regs will stop at family farms, think again.
Here's how the White House reacted when it thought that there might be controversy:
The White House may have sensed ahead of time the political dust-up the proposals would have caused. The White House's regulatory review office sat on the proposals for nine months before opening them up to public comment. Such a review is typically supposed to be concluded within three months. The White House released the rules after pressure from safety advocates.
One would think that it would be pretty easy to look good acting to protect children. One could even look charitable by protecting the kids of migrants and the rural poor. It should be, ahem, child's play to frame your opponents as being in the pocket of uncaring, big agricultural interests who want to exploit child labor. When Sarah Palin writes blatant falsehoods while advocating for the other side, it would be easy to call her out, saying that she, "isn't playing with a full deck of facts," or something equally sound-bite worthy. Seriously.
It also makes one wonder whatever happened to the role of party leadership when Democrats like Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill strongly support big agriculture and oppose the administration.
Failure to stand up and speak the truth about these regulations led to an outcome that hurts kids, not the administration as reported in the Huffington Post:
Norma Flores Lopez, a child farm workers' advocate at the nonprofit Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, told The Huffington Post that the rules were "common sense" and would have helped protect children who work as migrants, not because of tradition but because their families need money.In case there's anyone who still believes that President Obama doesn't have the skills, or just can't find the bully pulpit, take a look at this:
"We felt that these were commonsense protections that maintained the traditions of family farms and would have saved many kids' lives. We're sad about it," said Lopez, who herself was a migrant worker as a child. "All the misinformation being put out there was really misrepresenting what these rules were. The benefits were overshadowed. The ones who will be paying for that is kids."
President Obama clearly has the rhetorical skills and the audacity to stand in the bully pulpit and deliver the goods. His dexterity in crafting and delivering messages was seen as so skillful that Advertizing Age named him "Marketer of the Year" in 2008:
Barack Obama has been named Advertising Age's 2008 Marketer of the Year for the simplicity, consistency and relevance of his campaign. Hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors attending the 2008 annual Association of National Advertisers conference voted for Obama's campaign over ad campaigns by major companies like Apple, Zappos, Nike and Coors. AdAge called Obama's historic November 4 win the "biggest day in the history of marketing," saying marketers have a lot to learn from his campaign. At a time when 70% of the population thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, Obama adopted a simple slogan of "Change" that never varied throughout his campaign, while his competitors tried for months to find similarly simple yet powerful messages.
Despite President Obama's proven skills, his progressive leanings seem to become overwhelmed by conservative rhetoric on a regular basis, such that much of his administration's policy seems to be less than what one might expect from a committed progressive with his level of skill. What is missing seems to be the will to forcefully and effectively make sustained use the bully pulpit in order to counter the malign influence of the opposition and its powerful media tools.
Often times in discussions about these issues, partisan progressives bring up that President Obama is a centrist or moderate and that progressives can't really expect the President to push hard for progressive issues since the President didn't campaign on being a progressive. For those partisan progressives, I offer this review of Candidate Obama's record in the form of a report from July, 2008:
Barack Obama had heard quite enough of the complaints that he is pirouetting, leaping, lurching even, toward the political center.In the end, it probably only matters what political label the President chooses for himself when he is trying to market himself to voters. What matters for progressives is whether progressive policy is being made and implemented and whether the progressive message is being delivered into the marketplace of ideas.
He is at heart, he told a crowd in suburban Atlanta, a pretty progressive guy who just happens to pack along a complicated world view.
“Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center,” he said. “The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me.”
To this, he adds, parenthetically: “And I must say some of this is my friends on the left” and those in the media.
“I am someone who is no doubt progressive,” he said, adding that he believes in universal health care and that government has a strong role to play in overseeing financial institutions and cracking down on abuses in bankruptcies and the like.
Given that the President is not in many cases carrying the progressive message forward, it is up to us as progressives to both attempt to push the President to live up to the progressive ideals that he espoused as a candidate and to also get that message out into the marketplace of ideas.
Progressives need to make more noise, especially now during the campaign season when attention is being paid by both the campaigns and the media to what President Obama's base is thinking about his performance in office. It may seem counterintuitive to partisan progressives to criticize the person they intend to elect and they may indeed not have the stomach for it. However, as they say, politics ain't beanbag and if progressives don't strongly advocate for progressive policy, nobody else is going to do it for us.