The Empty Pulpit: The Obama Problem
It was Teddy Roosevelt who with characteristic aplomb dubbed the presidency a “bully pulpit.” T.R. used the nation’s highest office as the perfect platform to rally the American people around a vigorous and, in his case, often controversial agenda. With Obama, we have, for the most part, an empty pulpit. During the campaign, Obama identified himself as a “progressive.” During his presidency, however, we have witnessed an ongoing failure to rally his base and the American people around a progressive agenda. In the absence of a progressive voice resonating from the White House, the radical Right continues to dominate the political noise, forcing its policy narratives into the media and policy decisions. Even as the nation is galvanized by the union-busting tactics of state Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere, perplexed by the bombing of Libya, and horrified by the unfolding nuclear catastrophe in Japan, the President seems content to stay out of the public eye, mostly holed up in the White House with his small cadre of Wall Street-centric advisors.
Let’s be clear: the Republicans have been as cynical, malevolent, obstructionist, and downright zany during this administration as anything I have seen in the twenty-five years I have been a D.C. denizen. But as T.R. knew, it is not the job of the president to accept roadblocks in Congress and then quietly whisper “uncle.” It is his job and that of his surrogates to aggressively go out to the public with a principled message and progressive narratives and to marshal the millions who support them to contact Congress and change their obstructionist and misguided ways.
This has been the signature failure of the Obama administration. Instead of standing on principle, Obama’s modus operandi has been to accede before the battle has really been joined. We have seen this repeatedly in the major issues of his presidency: the emasculation of the so-called “stimulus package”; the abandonment of the health care public option; acceding to the Bush tax cuts; failure to push for effective global warming legislation; surrendering to the hawks on the Afghan war; failure to stand up for the rights to public trial for those detained in Guantanamo; and now complicity in irresponsible and unnecessary cutting of critical government services.
Of course, politics is the art of the possible and leading is often about compromising. This we know. But there is a critical difference between compromising on strategies versus compromising and even abandoning basic progressive principles and narratives as Obama has done. The immediate result is that the administration compromised badly or was outright defeated. Obama has not become a clever compromiser but rather a recidivist capitulator. But the longer-term damage of the president failing to step into the pulpit of the presidency has been the failure to counter the Right’s reactionary narratives with progressive narratives. This resulted in a disastrous failure to mobilize the base in 2010 and offered no encouragement for independents to join with progressives. Not surprisingly half of the Democrats and the vast majority of youthful voters did not even show up at the polls in 2010. The House majority was lost and if it were not for the buffoonery of several Tea Party Senate candidates, the Senate would have been lost as well.
So what were some of the progressive narratives that were not even articulated by Obama, and therefore left reactionary policy narratives to win the day? Every frustrated progressive will have his choices. Here are my top five:
Reactionary Narrative: Government is the problem. It is bad, even evil, and should be eliminated or privatized as much as possible
Countering Progressive Narrative: Government is good and a major part of the solution to our economic and social problems — large, robust local, state and federal government services are critical to our individual and national well-being
To be true to their “anti-big government” message, Tea Party rallies should have been festooned with signs such as “Fire the Fireman,” “No More Police,” “Bite the Postman,” “We Support Fewer Teachers and Overcrowded Classrooms,” “Collapse our Bridges — No More Infrastructure,” “We’ll Pave and Build Our Own Roads,” “Citizens for Salmonella,” “Unsafe Drugs for Everyone,” “Americans for a Weak Defense,” “Senior Citizens Against Medicaid and Medicare.” These signs were missing, of course, and instead we have the endless brow furrowing over “big government” in both parties as the discussion remains conveniently abstract.
This vagueness is important for the Tea Party and their big corporate funders because the entire “big government is evil” narrative is incoherent once it is actually thought through. Everyone wants and needs robust and effective government services. However, in the 1980s the Reagan spinmeisters cleverly linked “big government” to “welfare moms” slurping vodka and driving Cadillacs, which had the advantage of being both apocryphal and racist. Over the last three decades “big government” has been artfully equated with helping the poor, immigrants, and other “undesirable” communities. This clever narrative about “big government” remains a rallying cry for the Right because large corporations use this mantra as a convenient cover to work against regulations that might protect the American people or the environment but cut into their profits. Additionally, the more the Right can cripple government through spending cuts the more they can show how it’s not working.
Meanwhile, it is indisputable that the two great crises in the Obama presidency, the financial meltdown and the gulf disaster, were both a direct result of too little government, too little regulation of corporations acting badly (actually criminally). So how is it conceivable that within just a few months of the Obama presidency “big government” suddenly became the culprit for our current economic malaise, rather than the failure of our government to reign in corporate influence and corruption that actually did cause it? Well in part it’s the empty pulpit problem. Perhaps in fear of the “big government” label, Obama simply has not forcefully reminded the American people that big government services are critical to each and every one of us, as are the public servants who perform them. Those first responders on 9/11, our teachers, firemen, police, health professionals, and those protecting our environment and ensuring our food and drugs are safe, are heroes not villains. They are the “care economy” that represents over 30 percent of our entire economy; they devote themselves to our collective welfare without the lure of profits and wealth.
Instead of standing up for government, for the care economy, and even expanding government programs to create an FDR-like jobs corps, Obama has frozen wages for public workers, defended the firing of teachers, and been mysteriously quiet during the recent Republican union busting jihad in the Midwest. Even worse, he has openly avowed his admiration for Reagan and his belief in limited government interference with the “invisible hand” of the free market. So we have a complete failure of the president to articulate the counter-narrative to the “big government” mantra. As a result instead of taxing the rich by eliminating the Bush tax cuts or getting out of Afghanistan we now face a 33 billion dollar “compromise” on the budget as the administration joins with the Republicans to further dismantle our public sector and public services. Unless this changes we will see further compromises in the coming years with the Republican dismantling of Medicare, Social Security, and the entire public safety sector.
Reactionary Narrative: Quality health care is a commodity available to those who can afford it.
Countering Progressive Narrative: Quality health care is a basic human right.
In 1944 as part of his “Second Bill of Rights” State of the Union Address FDR declared that “the right to adequate health care” for all Americans was critical for our progress as a nation. Unfortunately he died before being able to realize this goal. When Obama decided, rightly or wrongly, to prioritize health care he should have started with this basic progressive narrative. He should have rallied the millions of women, men, and children with no health insurance to declare that quality health care is a basic right and urged his base to relentlessly pressure Congress. The White House should have been working overtime to make sure the stories of the uninsured working people of this country were in the media — front and center to the American people.
Working under this principle of health care as a “right” Obama should have taken the legislative lead with a call to extend Medicare to every citizen, and compromised from that position of principled strength. Instead Obama articulated no basic narrative or principle in the health care fight; there was no callout to millions to rally behind a shared belief in this critical area of social justice. In lieu of this kind of real leadership he made a quick behind-closed-doors deal with the pharmaceutical companies and then left the entire legislative “sausage making” to five different Congressional committees, many of them dominated by representatives and senators whose votes had long been paid for by “big pharma” and the insurance companies. What’s worse, Obama in his haste for some kind of compromise prematurely threw the public option under the bus, alienating his base and significantly weakening the bill. The bill that emerged continued to support the reactionary paradigm of treating health care as a commodity albeit making buying this commodity mandatory. Its passage caused pharmaceutical and insurance stock to rise.
With the base discouraged and no progressive organizing having been done, the nascent Tea Party was able to seize the public space to violently attack the already weak bill and bizarrely label its supporters as “socialists.” During this late summer of tumult the White House remained inexplicably mum. Finally under unrelenting Tea Party pressure the White House decided to abandon even this weak bill, but Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership realized the very viability of the presidency was at stake and artfully passed the bill even though it was far weaker than the House version. The counter-narrative of health care as a “right” was never even given a chance by the Obama administration.
Reactionary Narrative: Free market competition is the basis for our economic life — the benefits of the winners will trickle down to the losers.
Counter Progressive Narrative: The free market is a dangerous fiction (as is trickle-down economics) — not everything is a market commodity and even then those commodity markets have always been regulated. The question is how and for whom to regulate markets so as to create the most equitable distribution of wealth.
Here’s an economics quiz. Who said the following: “The market is the best mechanism ever invented for efficiently allocating resources to maximize production…. I also think there is a connection between the freedom of the marketplace and freedom more generally.” Milton Freidman? Bill Crystal? Nope. That’s Barack Obama in 2008 as a presidential candidate. After the financial collapse Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner opined: “We have a financial system that is run by private shareholders, managed by private institutions, and we’d like to do our best to preserve that system.” Well they sure did.
When economists look back at the Obama presidency I suspect what will puzzle them most is how after one of the most dramatic economic collapses in our history caused by badly regulated markets, free market fundamentalism still somehow survived to dominate our public policy yet again. What showed this most clearly is the Obama administration’s bended knee to Wall Street. Currently the financial sector (even excluding real estate) accounts for more than 40 percent of corporate profits in the United States and around 25-30 percent of our GNP. So to an alarming extent the United States is becoming a “casino” economy. In fact today more than $680 trillion is invested in various derivative investment “bets” worldwide. That’s ten times the entire world’s gross national product! Instead of warning about the growing power of this metastasizing, dangerous, and massively destabilizing financial “complex” (as Eisenhower did about the “military industrial complex”) Obama sees Wall Street as a manifestation of his belief in free markets (albeit with a glaze of regulation) and yet ironically believes that massive government investment in this sector will “trickle down” to the rest of the economy. Well it hasn’t happened and it won’t happen. The federal funding to Wall Street will be used by those receiving it to invest in yet more exotic financial products and bets; if the bubble bursts again at the old Wall Street casino they can count on the government again to provide “house” money so they can keep on playing.
Obama should have embraced the progressive narrative that free markets cannot and have not protected workers, our environment, or even the stability of our financial systems. Over the last two centuries the purported “free market” oppressed generations of workers, utilized child labor, caused exponential destruction of natural resources, and created huge booms and busts in the financial system. This is because the free market was based in the fiction that labor, land and its resources, and money were actually commodities subject to the laws of supply and demand. Well labor is really human beings, not a commodity. Land and many resources are not commodities that can be endlessly produced but rather non-renewable natural “capital” that we destroy at our peril. And money is an exchange medium that is not a commodity and that should not be subject to the ups and downs, inflations and depressions, of investment betting.
Starting with Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era it was understood that the free market was thus a fiction. It was also correctly seen that these contradictions were creating large scale worker unrest and even revolution, destruction of the resource base of the country, and unsustainable inflation and depressions in the financial markets. So for the last century virtually the entire regulatory system of the United States was established to protect the market system from itself. Labor as a commodity was taken off the free market with the establishment of the Department of Labor in 1917 and the promulgation of, among other reforms, workers protection, workplace safety, social security, a minimum wage, and unemployment insurance. A flood of laws and regulation from zoning to the major environmental laws of the 1960s and ’70s were put in place to protect our resources from the undiluted market. The FDIC and laws restricting and controlling by whom and in what manner investments could be made were put in place to protect the financial system from the market.
The Republicans under the sway of free market fundamentalism have forgotten this entire history. They now openly seek to tear down the very protections that keep the market system they profess to believe in functioning. Instead of busting the free market, trickle-down economics myth, Obama with his free market rhetoric and Wall Street-friendly policies has opened the door to a return, after a century of dormancy, of these “zombie” economic ideas. Of Obama’s capitulation to the Bush tax cuts and embracing of free market and trickle down ideology Paul Krugman wrote, “…it’s one thing to make deals to advance your goals; it’s another to open the door to zombie ideas. When you do that, the zombies end up eating your brain — and quite possibly your economy too.” And that is just what has happened.
Reactionary Narrative: You counter terrorism by fighting land wars and overthrowing dictators (especially when oil is involved).
Counter Progressive Narrative: The Best Way to Fight Terrorism is through Cooperative International Police Action and Foreign Policy Changes – Not Land Wars.
It was probably the most important, lost moment in the last presidential election. On July 31, 2008 the Rand Corporation, a conservative think tank started by the U.S. Air Force, produced a new report entitled How Terrorist Groups End — Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida. The report studied 648 terrorist groups between 1988 and 2006 and found that military operations against such groups was by a wide margin the least effective means of success. The evidence was unmistakable: terrorist groups very rarely cease to exist as a result of winning or losing a war-type military campaign. Therefore the study concludes that the so-called “war on terrorism” simply would not be successful as it was currently being implemented and that the efforts against terrorist networks should not be characterized as a “war” at all. The study demonstrated that terrorism was best defeated by treating it as an international criminal matter not as a “war.” The report summarized, “Al Qa’ida consists of a network of individuals who need to be tracked and arrested. This requires careful involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as their cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies.”
Of course you don’t need to be the Rand Corporation to see that this “war on terror” narrative is anomalous to dealing with any international terrorist network. Terrorist networks almost by definition are not bound by any country and can operate anywhere from Frankfurt to Jakarta or Elizabeth, New Jersey. Invade one country and they simply go to another. Moreover they can have “cells” anywhere and communicate via the Internet. Obviously international intelligence and police work is what’s required to deal with these networks, not WWII style military operations. Case closed.
Moreover, progressives know that many of the real foundations for terror lie in misguided oil-based U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, including decades of support for brutal dictators and also an overweening obeisance to the Israel Lobby. Obama missed his historic opportunity to clarify this during the campaign, to “bust” the misleading “war on terror” narrative. Instead, he kept saying that Iraq was the “wrong war” and then stating with misguided enthusiasm that the “real war” was in Afghanistan. He made the same fateful error as president. He spent many months reexamining the U.S. Afghan policy, reportedly receiving counsel from all sides. But, locked into the prism and prison of the “war on terror” narrative, he decided to increase our presence there by tens of thousands of troops. A position he still forcefully adheres to.
This has doomed Obama into a Rube Goldberg type policy in Afghanistan which goes something like this: even though al-Qaida is no longer in Afghanistan we have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, and the lives of our soldiers and innocent Afghanis, to take sides in a civil war against our former allies the Taliban. And we are committed to support the dictatorial warlords and their opium industry just in case al-Qaida might someday come back to Afghanistan even though they are not there now and we have no evidence they would ever come back. Moreover this bizarre policy has left Obama in the embarrassing position of trying to defend sacrificing our soldiers and treasure to uphold the hopelessly corrupt Karzai government. It is projected that in 2011 the Afghan War will cost more than $117 billion and probably more than that in 2012. So Obama’s folly in Afghanistan means that these funds, much of which will probably end up in the bank accounts of the Karzai clan and their cronies, will not be used to create jobs, repair infrastructure, pay teachers, or clean the environment.
Reactionary Narrative: Global warming and other environmental problems are either vastly exaggerated or don’t really exist — and if they do exist, the solution is market and technology based.
Progressive Narrative: It’s the ecology stupid — global warming is the greatest threat to the survival of civilization. The solution to global warming and other major environmental crises is governments at all levels cooperating to change our economic and technological systems to better comport with the principles of ecology.
In April 2009, Carol Browner, the White House coordinator for energy and climate policy, convened a meeting with advocates who were working on the climate change bill. The administration had a clear message. Given their polling data, the administration told advocates that they should avoid talking about climate change and focus on green jobs and energy independence instead.
Environmentalist Lee Wasserman commented on this meeting: “Had Lyndon Johnson likewise relied on polling he would have told the Rev. Martin Luther King to talk only about the expanded industry and jobs that Southerners would realize after passage of a federal civil rights act. I could imagine Dr. King’s response.” Obama has stayed true to the polling. In his 2011 State of the Union Address there was not a single mention of global warming. (I actually prefer the term climate destabilization to climate change.) It is one thing to fail to mount the pulpit and warn Americans of the dire crisis we and future generations are in, it is altogether another to order advocates to stop using the term altogether. Given his timidity about even using the term, it is not surprising that Obama also failed to push a meaningful climate destabilization bill. Advocates constantly complained that the administration was a “no show” as they attempted to get a bill passed. There has not only been complete failure to pass a climate bill but instead the environmental community is now fighting off a last ditch effort by Republicans to remove the authority of the EPA to regulate climate destabilization gases, an authority upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007. Additionally with no bully pulpit defending the science of climate destabilization, the global warming deniers have had a field day in the media and we have seen a marked increase in the number of Americans who now doubt the existence of global warming.
Climate destablization has not been Obama’s only blind spot when it comes to the progressive environmental agenda. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama does not mention the environment once. As for policy, it was Obama’s Department of Interior that gave the final permit for Deepwater Horizon. The administration then was very slow to recognize the dimension of the disaster. What’s worse, the Obama EPA allowed for the massive use of potential toxic dispersants despite claims that they were controlling the use of these little researched and understood chemicals. Finally the administration was actively complicit in prematurely claiming an end to the harms of the spill as this stance became politically expedient due to the upcoming election.
Obama’s focus on jobs over the environment is especially harmful as the progressive narrative is that whether we like it or not our human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of ecology. Wall Street investments and indeed the whole gamut of market economics and employment, if based on non-ecological principles, are not only not sustainable, but actively speed the exhaustion of the remaining stores of the earth’s resources. Appropriately, there has been much talk about peak oil. But we also face peak water, peak topsoil, pollinator collapse, and a myriad of other crises all exacerbated by climate destabilization. Obama’s unwillingness to take a leadership role in redefining our societal relationship to the natural world at this critical time may be his most lasting failure as a leader.
There is no immediate panacea to the “empty pulpit” problem we now face with the Obama administration. However, as we approach the next presidential election it is important, at a minimum, for progressives to challenge the president in the primaries. Not because there is a serious chance of having more progressive candidates at this time. But rather so that progressive narratives and voices so critical at this time can speak to an America that I believe is truly hungry for this vision of our society and ourselves.