Friday, August 22, 2014

The presidency is more than a bully pulpit

There are times when I listen to President Obama's critics that I think they must assume that the only power granted to the presidency by our constitution is access to the infamous "bully pulpit." Lately its been Michael Eric Dyson who has gotten a lot of attention for criticizing the President's statements about Ferguson while totally ignoring anything the administration has actually done.

An example of this phenomenon can also be found in Paul Waldman's attempt to explain President Obama to those who are criticizing his response to Ferguson. He cites the political polarization in polling about what the President has done. But then he assumes that all he's done is talk.
The important context to keep in mind for these figures is that Obama hasn’t actually done much of anything to either be pleased or displeased about. His statements on the subject have been designed to offend no one, trying to touch every possible perspective...
Nowhere in that article does Waldman mention that the FBI has initiated an investigation or that AG Holder visited Ferguson yesterday. And of course there's no talk about what's been going on behind the scenes with telephone conversations President Obama, Eric Holder and other members of the administration have had with community leaders and local officials. Its as if Waldman thinks the only tool a president has for dealing with a situation like this is the bully pulpit.

That's why this editorial in the NYT by Tali Mendelberg and Bennett Butler is such a refreshing change of pace. They take on the critique by many on the left that President Obama hasn't addressed poverty.
A true measure of a president’s priorities lies hidden in plain sight in his budget proposals. Under that standard, Mr. Obama has been more committed to communities like Ferguson than any Democratic president in the past half century.

By looking at what percentage of the budget presidents propose to spend to fight poverty, we can compare their degree of commitment...

Using this method, we find that President Obama attempted to deliver far more than his counterparts. The Congressional Budget Office’s inflation-adjusted numbers show that Mr. Obama sought to spend far more on means-tested anti-poverty programs than other first-term Democratic presidents. 
After providing data to demonstrate their point, the authors attempt to explain why - given this record - President Obama is subjected to this kind of criticism. Their answer is that he doesn't talk much about poverty..."Mr. Obama has been spending without saying."

But I'd challenge them on that point as well. If you pay attention to how President Obama talks about these issues, you will almost always find him talking about "the middle class and those who are struggling to get into the middle class." In other words, he addresses their aspirations rather than their current condition. That kind of nuance doesn't show up on a nexus search on the word "poverty" and it often goes right over the head of most pundits. But its just another way this President demonstrates his empathy.

So yes, words matter. But in the end, when it comes to the presidency, actions matter more.


  1. Pundits are jerkoff experts. Some critics are so used to narratives and theatrics that they don't bother with facts. Dyson and 'em aren't organizers of any sort. So it's natural that they look at performance instead of achievement.


    1. Dyson's one great gift is talking. Hence, when all you have is a hammer...

  2. We all need far more than visceral satisfaction. That's what we got with an immediate response via the DOJ. The rest is theater, and pumping for it while criticizing the president for not providing it is the height of immaturity.