How well is President Obama using his bully pulpit?


President Barack Obama’s approval rating has dipped below 40 percent for the first time during his term in office. (Pete Souza/THE WHITE HOUSE)
August 15, 2011

With the president’s approval rating sinking below 40 percent for the first time, this week’s On Leadership roundtable explores Obama’s wavering leadership and how he could steady it—with opinion pieces by former Congressman Mickey Edwards, journalist Evan Thomas, public opinion polling expert Peter Hart, and Harvard Professor Nancy Koehn.

As Theodore Roosevelt put it, what presidents have is a “bully pulpit.” “Bully,” in Roosevelt’s parlance, meant “superb”; other presidents—Lyndon Johnson comes to mind—have used “bully” in its more common modern sense. And our current president?

Evaluating a president’s leadership skills is no easy matter. Unlike a corporate executive or military commander, American presidents have the ability to shape public debate but are not really in charge of much outside the structure of administrative agencies and the operations of the armed forces. Almost every major power of the federal government—what to tax, how much to tax it, how much to spend, what to spend it on, what programs to create, which treaties to approve, who to place on the Supreme Court, whether to go to war—ultimately lies with Congress, not the presidency. Presidential exercise of leadership is much more indirect: putting issues on the agenda, marshaling support for favored policies, using one’s popularity to grant, or withhold, endorsement. So with that narrow framework available for fair evaluation, how has Barack Obama done so far?

Let’s consider three key questions. What are a president’s principal responsibilities and how well has Obama fared at meeting them? What are a president’s priorities and are his the right ones? What are the tools at a president’s disposal and how well has he used them?

First, consider that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, not President of the American Left or the American Right or the Democratic Party or the Wheat Farmers of America. Most of the criticism of Obama’s “leadership” has come either from partisans who see it as Obama’s job to fight more vigorously for their point of view or from those who judge him as championing a view they oppose. Both of these groups see the presidency as a sectarian position and the occupier of that office as a champion of one ideology or another—as a partisan and an ideologue. They find nothing wrong with that description; they merely insist that it be their party and their ideology that dominates.

Obama frustrates both because, while he is unabashedly liberal and is sometimes guided by that commitment (his campaign for a national health-care plan and his insistence on raising taxes on the wealthy being prime examples), he seems to grasp that it is his job to be president of a diverse nation of 300 million people with honest disagreements over the best course for America’s future. Disappointed Obama supporters on the Left attack the president for being who he is: a deliberative man.

But that is his strength, and ours. It is what our system of government requires. Except in confronting obvious injustice (the long restrictions on the freedoms of women and blacks being the most obvious examples), America does not need table-pounders and screamers. In most cases, a willingness to entertain compromise, in terms of process, is our one essential. On that measure, Obama deserves much higher marks than he has been getting.

In terms of priorities, however, the president has done less well. Advocates of national health insurance have been waging their campaigns since at least 1920, and with considerable success—think Medicare and Medicaid. Advocates of an ever-steeper progressive income tax have been pressing their cause for more than a century, again with some success. One can understand Obama’s commitment to those goals (he is a liberal, after all). But America has some very distinct problems at the moment. The economy hovers between stagnation and free fall; an unacceptable number of Americans are without jobs; decades of over-spending, and that includes excessive military spending as well as entitlements, have destroyed our credit-worthiness. The president has spent too much of his time and political capital on issues he considers important but which are clearly not the most urgent items on the national agenda. Here his critics, especially those in the Heartland, have a point: In the current economy, the president does not have the luxury of spending much time on pet causes.

Finally, how well has the president used his unique rhetorical talent and his place at the center of the media spotlight? Poorly. To put it bluntly, the president talks too much. Barack Obama has a power rare among political leaders—he can move audiences with the strength of his words. But it is a resource that diminishes with over-use. At times the president and his advisers seem to get carried away with the belief that the world is waiting to hear what the president has to say about everything, from a confrontation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the president’s first comments were decidedly unhelpful, to his ill-considered demands that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak step down “immediately” rather than allow the Egyptian people to use a brief interregnum to shape a workable constitutional government. The deal that at least temporarily increased the federal debt ceiling came to fruition only when House and Senate leaders sat down to work things out themselves, without the president’s intervention.

Knowing when to step in and when to step back, when to speak and when to work more quietly behind the scenes, are important leadership skills. And they are skills the president has not yet mastered.  

Former Congressman Mickey Edwards was a senior member of the House Republican leadership. He is currently a vice president of the Aspen Institute.

From the roundtable:

Evan Thomas: Mr. President, want to save your approval rating?

Nancy Koehn: Wake up, Obama: Listen to your forefathers

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