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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Bully Pulpit Must Sound A Call To Action: A Reply to James Vega

This item is a guest post by Tom Phillips, a retired corporate attorney who contributes to Daily Kos as TRPChicago.
I usually enjoy your Strategy Memos for content, logic and style, but I wholeheartedly disagree with James Vega’s latest piece, “The bully pulpit is not a magic wand.”
President Obama (my wife and I vigorously supported him as contributors and as volunteers in 2008) usually gives memorable speeches, head and shoulders better than anyone else on the political scene today. Yes, he’s mentioned jobs and the economy. And yes, he’s made a lot of appearances this year that focus on how some businesses are doing being innovative. So therefore…we shouldn’t think the bully pulpit has been or can be effective? He has a bully pulpit, all right, but he hasn’t used it.
James Vega’s memo makes several points.
1. The President has been mentioning jobs. But he got mired down in the faux debt crisis and bought the view that government spending was getting out of control. Both he and the GOP mentioned jobs and the economy. I couldn’t tell them apart. But I did hear from him that the deficit was the major thing to attend to now, next year and in the long run. And as for jobs proposals, they got completely drowned out by the debt/government-spending debacle–and I’m worried, very worried, that’s where they’ll stay. As for now, all we’ve heard from the President’s pulpit is a much-criticized, teleprompter-controlled pap-pallid statement to the press proposing patent reform and extending the payroll tax holiday. The former won’t produce one discernible job in my lifetime and the latter is good, but it’s a whisper in the wind, effective next year.
2. He’s made speeches, everywhere: 19 trips to 22 projects. Yes, but mostly in daytime, mostly in the Midwest, mostly to businesses where he tours and talks about how great their efforts are. But most of us are not great. America’s unemployment is at a durable high, in the double digits when you consider how many people have had to take part-time, low-wage jobs. Those aren’t success stories, they’re a frickin’ ongoing crises amidst a moribund economy! President Obama’s proofs of successes on the road are in no way directed to an audience that needs to be moved to action.
3. As for energy, Vega writes: “It is difficult to imagine a much more consistent and continued use of the ‘bully pulpit’ and yet there has been virtually no visible change in the national discussion of clean energy.” The only thing more boring and removed than energy issues right now are climate issues. Energy policy is an area where the Obama administration is making progress, with the new fuel standards and their ringing endorsement by – wait for it! – the auto industry! We will do very well for the American economy if we can innovate in this profoundly important area with technology, new materials and manufacturing techniques. That is a huge victory, but it’s largely behind-the-scenes and in the future. To conclude that the President’s advocacy on energy matters hasn’t affected the “national discussion” seems beside the point.
So, what is my point?
(1) A bully pulpit must sound a call to action, an aggressive and persuasive case for urgent change. A bang! A big bang, several bangs in fact, using the Presidency’s formidable power to persuade (thank you, Richard Neustadt!) and move the American people.
(2) The president needs to put forth a set or sets of proposals — specific, bold, significant and likely to be effective within months after adoption (“shovel ready”). These could include an infrastructure bank, with private and public money, to fund investment in American jobs now and in America’s near and longer-term future, and putting into practice Board-certified Keynesian/Krugman/Friedman populism. Consumer spending will energize the economy, not to mention American households and business opportunities.
(3) Obama must also provide vocal, prominent leadership for his party and the public. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting doing a Hillary-on-health-care bill where she presented an 1100 page draft to Congress; that’s too specific.) I am suggesting that President Obama give legislators something to move, and supply specifics for the believers to accomplish … and for non-believers to explain why they can’t be done– something the American people and editorial boards and state and local officials can relate to. Let the nay-sayers vent; we all know who stands taller than they do.
Two times this President recently asked us all to write or call our Congressmen. But what, specifically, did he ask? “Tell them, ‘take a balanced approach’ to the debt debate.” What in the [deleted] is that? The newest Hill intern answering phones in the busiest Hill office could turn that message into a checkmark to support any position, even a Tea Partyist’s! Talk about depreciating the currency from the pulpit.
A presidential call to Congress – and a strategized roll-out to yea-sayers to keep the ball rolling – would energize public discourse. I don’t understand why this White House can’t be as good as Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin at getting and keeping the attention of the mainstream media–and energizing responsible institutions like TDS in the process.

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