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Monday, December 17, 2012

Obama's Empty Pulpit

-- by Tom Phillips

One of my retirement hobbies is drafting speeches for President Obama.  I lie awake composing responses to national crises, and then imagine myself begging and pleading with him to speak up, to rouse the nation, to say and do what needs to be done. 

Surely there are those in Washington who feel the same way, and may even have access to the President, and the skill to compose an effective response to something like Hurricane Sandy, or the slaughter of kindergarten children in Connecticut.  But the President is clearly hesitant to lead his forces into battle, even when he knows he’s right and the nation is behind him.  He did manage to mention climate change in his election night victory speech, and has now solemnly promised to use his power to try to prevent more massacres.  But on both fronts, he has left it to others to talk specifics.  The President has a Bully Pulpit, but it stands empty, week after traumatic week.  At best he is a ghostly presence,  raising hope and offering consolation, but without leading or pointing the way ahead.  
Full disclosure:  I voted for Obama, twice, though I supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries.  But my original reservation about him stands:  that he doesn’t have enough experience, that he doesn’t know enough about politics or life to be the “transformational leader” that his admirers expected him to be.   

It took him four years to learn the most basic principle of bargaining, that you don’t negotiate against yourself.  Finally he has stiffened his back against Republicans who want to preserve tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.  But he seems so mesmerized by the job of not budging on the “fiscal cliff” that he has so far failed to step up to huge, sudden opportunities to lead, on gun control and climate change.   

The president reportedly hopes to go down in history as one of America’s greatest Presidents, and he has even called in presidential historians to advise him on how greatness is achieved.  I don’t know what the scholars have told him, but I hope it would include something about seizing the moment.  Rather than wasting his time ruminating about how to be great, a President needs to take advantage of events, and the emotions they set off, to force a change in the underlying political dynamics, to make politically unpalatable actions seem unavoidable.  The worst possible thing Obama could do is to follow his anti-dramatic instincts, and the advice of nay-saying conservatives, and “let emotions cool off” before acting.   Psychological research shows that emotion is necessary for making decisions, and this is as true of nations as it is of individuals.    

Obama has a couple of opportunities left: a second inaugural, and a State of The Union address in January.   Hurricane Sandy and the slaughter in Newtown will still be open wounds, and Congress could yet be shamed into action, if the president could move the nation to demand it.   If I were writing the speech, he would call for action across the board:  let’s go over the cliff, raise taxes and immediately plough the added revenue back into the economy.  We could create jobs laying the groundwork for a new infrastructure, built to both reduce and withstand global warming.  We could buy back guns from the public, and beat them into plowshares.  Add universal health care and immigration reform, and you have a vision of a new American century.   We’d give it a name, in the tradition of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier.   

But I'm not writing the speech, and I’m not going to frustrate myself with imaginary pleadings.  It’s up to the president to seize this moment, and make of it what he can.   
Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips