Sunday, September 16, 2012

President Obama on the bully pulpit and dealing with an obstructionist Congress

I want to highlight another item from Michael Lewis' article on Obama's Way and his interview with Terry Gross on NPR.

During the interview, Lewis says that President Obama told him that the bully pulpit is broken. He said that is partly because of our polarized media, but also ties in to this whole Republican strategy of obstruction. The President knew that the minute he proposed something - even if it was originally a Republican idea - they would oppose it. And the louder he fought for it, the more strenuous their objections would be.

My take on that would be that it opens the door to a powerful strategy for Democrats in a campaign. And we've seen the President use that opportunity very well over the last few months in making this a choice election rather than a referendum.

But when you need to actually get something done legislatively - like a stimulus or health care reform - it means that using the bully pulpit to advocate for policies can actually work against you.

But then in the article, President Obama explains it even further.
He admits that he has been guilty, at times, of misreading the public. He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them. He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president. But the idea that he might somehow frighten Congress into doing what he wanted was, to him, clearly absurd. “All of these forces have created an environment in which the incentives for politicians to cooperate don’t function the way they used to,” he said. “L.B.J. operated in an environment in which if he got a couple of committee chairmen to agree he had a deal. Those chairmen didn’t have to worry about a Tea Party challenge. About cable news. That model has progressively shifted for each president. It’s not a fear-versus-a-nice-guy approach that is the choice. The question is: How do you shape public opinion and frame an issue so that it’s hard for the opposition to say no. And these days you don’t do that by saying, ‘I’m going to withhold an earmark,’ or ‘I’m not going to appoint your brother-in-law to the federal bench.’”
So lets break that down a bit, shall we? First of all, President Obama - like VP Biden - was aware of the Republican strategy of obstruction from the beginning of his term. All that mess about him being naive was ridiculous from the get-go. Where he calculated wrong was in thinking that the American people (and the media, I might add) would hold Republicans accountable for that. In other words, he had the audacity to believe that a party that was willing to sacrifice the good of the American people (during the worst recession of our lifetimes) for their own political ends, would eventually pay a price. Imagine that!

But then he gets all up in some arguments we heard for years from disgruntled leftists. You remember...all those folks that thought that if he just acted more like LBJ in his wheeling and dealing he could kick some Republican ass. What he's saying is that the threat of a Tea Party primary challenge and/or getting blasted on Faux News was more of a threat to them than any little goodie he might hold out or withhold to gain their support. All he had was the possibility of enough of us joining him to hold their feet to the fire.

This is President Obama articulating what those of us who call ourselves "pragmatic progressives" have been saying all along. If more of those lefties (who were so focused on pressuring Obama) had trained their efforts on pressuring Republicans to move or be shamed in the court of public opinion, we might have helped him bust their stranglehold on gridlock.

Let's not make that mistake again!


  1. Just have to tell you Smartypants; I'm SO enjoying your analysis of the Michael Lewis article. Such great insight!

    1. Thanks Sherry.

      I found the article to be full of interesting tidbits.

    2. You're very welcome. I'd also add that you're very good at dissecting and analyzing all the tidbits. Your site is always a must read for me.

  2. The Republicans have rewritten the rules of politics and governance. They *are* willing to shoot the hostage. The President has had to get creative to outwit them.

    It helps that they have completely misread the President as well. They changed the rules but didn't pay attention to who the other player was. They still think they're dealing with Jimmy Carter and are still living in another century. It's clear that the whiny left are living in the previous century as well. None of the President's opponents have adapted to the current playing field. Changing the rules isn't enough.

    The President has adapted to the new rules and the new playing field and he has learned from his mistakes. The same cannot be said of the GOP or emoprogs.

  3. Michael Lewis wrote a solid, fascinating account about what he saw, heard, and experienced in six months of shadowing the President. His stated goal was not to uncover secrets or find flaws to criticize, but to provide the average citizen with a rough idea of what it's like to be POTUS in 2012. This is a valid form of journalism - serving as eyes and ears for people who can't go where the reporter goes.

    I was very disappointed to see people like Booman dismiss it as "fluff" simply because it paints a positive picture of the President. To me, "fluff" is not defined by tone, but rather by content. When an article is about trivial things like what Michelle wears, or what Barack's workout routine is, that's "fluff." You can even have negative fluff, like Mark Knoller's "reporting" about the number of golf games PBO plays, or Cokie Roberts's complaints about the family spending vacations in "exotic" Hawaii.

    If some want to say that Lewis's article is overly generous to PBO, that's a valid opinion, but it is far from fluff. The main narrative thread of the piece is as serious as it gets, and timely as well: the process by which PBO settled on a course of action regarding Libya. As Smartypants has been highlighting here, it provides important insights into how the President of the United States makes difficult calls. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Smartypants is the one blogger on the Internet who really "gets" PBO and articulates it best. Thank you!

  4. I believe the president did the right thing in getting as much done as possible. I didin't expect him to get it from all sides. I didn't expect the GOP to act as badly as they did towards a fellow senator. I expected his people in congress to be a little sharper than they were. I didn't expect our media to be as godawful as they have been after Iraq 2. If anyone was naive, it was me. I blame structural problems that the democrats had before Obama got in. The GOP did the same thing in the 90s and got away with it. PBO is doing his thing. I like what he said about cable news. You're better off with ESPN.

    I hope these 4 years have caused our electorate to smarten up. I say no more republicans until Jesus comes back.


  5. Thank you Smartypants for your excellent analysis. Your next assignment, should you choose to accept it is to educate the illiterate who vote Republican! If you are caught in the process, the secretary will disavow any knowledge. This message will self destruct on November 7, 2012.


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