Robert Reich on “The Empty Bully Pulpit”

Robert Reich, a co-founder of The American Prospect magazine, former Secretary of Labor, and now a professor of public policy, is one of my favorite writers of political and economic matters, someone immensely knowledgeable who’s also gifted with an strong sense of humor, which no doubt helped him when he was dealing with Congress.

I strongly recommend reading this column from the September-October issue of The American Prospect, in which Reich criticizes President Obama for failing to set out a set of goals for the country. (The whole issue is worth reading, in fact, with some intelligent criticism of both Bush and Obama and both parties in Congress for major missed opportunities over the last decade.)

It seems to me that in the recent past, specifically since the crisis provoked by the GOP’s irresponsible debt ceiling hostage strategy (and I’m being very restrained in that description), Obama has started to do a little bit better job in terms of presenting a case to the public. But I think the substance of what Reich wrote here unfortunately still holds true. Here are the last three paragraphs:

Why is Obama not using the bully pulpit? Perhaps he no longer trusts that Americans will hear him. Whatever the reason—that he’s embroiled in the tactical maneuvers that pass for policy-making, or intent on preserving political capital for the next skirmish, or cynical about how the media will relay or distort his message—he doesn’t try. He may also disdain the repetition necessary to break through the noise and drive home the larger purpose of his presidency.

A more disturbing explanation is that he simply lacks the courage to tell the truth. He wants most of all to be seen as a responsible adult rather than a fighter.

As such, he allows himself to be trapped by situations (the debt-ceiling imbroglio most recently) within which he tries to offer reasonable responses, rather than be the leader who shapes the circumstances from the start. He cannot mobilize Americans around the truth, in other words, because he is continuously adapting to the prevailing view. That’s not what Americans thought they were getting when they elected Obama president.

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