Is Obama Relying Too Much on the “Bully Pulpit?”

Steve Sack, The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Is President Barack Obama relying too much on the bully pulpit in his speeches and interviews and not focusing enough on pulling out all stops to work with members of Congress to avert the draconian sequester cuts from going into effect?

That’s a new question being raised in some reporting and analysis — seemingly given credibility by the White House’s new effort to stress that they’re reaching across the aisle. To be sure, for Obama to reach across the aisle there has to be someone there to accept his hand, rather than hold out a hand with one finger up. But this question is being raised about how Obama’s efforts to work the system versus working the polity compare with other Presidents’ efforts. And all of this is tied into the eventual “blame game” that will dominate news stories if the cuts go into effect — and generate the “plight stories” such cuts are sure to produce.


For instance, The Politico:

President Barack Obama’s greatest adversary in the latest budget battle isn’t the Republican leadership in Congress — it’s his confidence in his own ability to force a win.

He has been so certain of his campaign skills that he didn’t open a line of communication with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell until Thursday, a week before the spending ax hits. And when they did finally hear from Obama, the calls were perfunctory, with no request to step up negotiations or invitations to the White House.

So far you can’t talk about significant progress. The question if the cuts go into effect is: who will the public blame more? Right now the polls are definitive: the Republicans will get the bulk of the blame (here’s just one recent poll). And political buzz on cable and elsewhere about how Republicans want to make sure they assure their base that they’re willing to fight by letting the sequester happen won’t help the GOP. But is Obama overplaying the bully pulpit card?

That’s because Obama’s all-in on an outside strategy, doing just about everything other than holding serious talks with Republicans. In the last two days alone, he’s courted local TV anchors, called in a select group of White House correspondents to talk off the record, chatted up black broadcasters and announced plans to stump next week at Virginia’s Newport News Shipyard. Throughout, he’s talked in tough terms that signal little interest in compromise — or suggestion of backing down.

He’s navigating a thin line. Obama is convinced he’s got the upper hand on Republicans. Yet he can go only so long before he risks being perceived as a main actor in Washington’s dysfunction, threatening a core element of his political brand — and the fragile economic recovery he’s struggled to maintain.

The calls placed Thursday to Boehner and McConnell were prompted, in part, by a White House desire to inoculate Obama from that exact criticism.

So far, the White House has reason to feel good about where it stands. New polling shows Obama’s popularity sits at a three-year high. Americans would blame Republicans if a deal to avert the sequester isn’t reached. And even a majority of Republican voters back Obama’s call for both spending cuts and tax hikes.

But Obama’s been virtually absent from the legislative process — more so than during previous budget showdowns. And if the president wants his public offensive to work, he needs to keep attention focused on Republicans and why they refuse to consider new revenue as part of a deal to avert the $1.2 trillion sequester.

“I will be honest with you right now,” Obama told SiriusXM host Joe Madison Thursday, “it is not clear to me that the Republicans are going to agree to turn this sequester off despite the fact that 75 percent of the American people agree with me in terms of the approach and disagree with them.”

Democratic and Republican veterans of Capitol Hill called the lack of interaction so close to a major deadline unusual, even by recent Washington standards.

“We don’t hear from the president or his staff a lot but there is usually at least something,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said shortly before Obama’s call.

The National Journal’s Charlie Cook thinks Obama’s approach of taking to the hustings can be counterproductive in some cases:

As we watch President Obama stumping for comprehensive immigration reform, the question arises: Does his high-visibility association with this issue make reform more or less likely to happen? The challenge of achieving comprehensive immigration legislation is not in winning the votes of House and Senate Democrats; it’s in getting enough Republican votes to pass it in the House and to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. Even after the party’s election debacle in November, and the role of Latino and Asian voters in bringing it about, persuading enough House Republicans and at least five GOP senators to support comprehensive immigration reform is going to be a heavy lift for party leaders, who clearly understand the importance of getting this issue off the table.

Every time Obama takes a public stand on immigration, he makes it that much more difficult for Republican members of Congress to support it. Keep in mind that 94 percent of House Republicans are in districts Mitt Romney carried and that 34 of 45 GOP senators represent states Obama lost. As a result, most congressional Republicans are far more afraid of losing a primary to a more conservative challenger than a general election to a Democrat. It is a lot easier for them to support an immigration bill that has broad-based support in the business and farming communities (and that also happens to be supported by Obama and the Democratic leadership) than to back a bill so popularly identified with the other side. If the president really cares about enacting immigration reform, he will get off the campaign trail, depoliticize it, and keep as quiet about it as he can.

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail; too often with this White House, the solution to any challenge is ramping up campaign-style events. Bad idea.

But one reality here seems to be that no matter what action is taken, it becomes a new major political issue. For instance, read The Hill’s account of Obama’s call to GOP leaders. A simple event? No. It itself now is a political issue — to the point where the phone call itself and the apparent intent is almost obscured:

President Obama on Thursday phoned Republican leaders in Congress to discuss the impasse surrounding $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to hit the government on March 1.

Obama made phone calls to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) eight days before the cuts are implemented and one day after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned they would lead to the furloughing of 800,000 civilian defense workers.

White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to give details of the call, while Republicans picked at Obama for not calling Democrats, a criticism that suggested they saw the calls as a political stunt.

“He placed calls earlier today to Sen. McConnell and Speaker Boehner, had good conversations, but I have no further readout of those calls for you,” Carney told reporters at his daily press briefing.

The calls appear aimed at demonstrating Obama is engaged in trying to avert the sequester — which the president has described as a “meat cleaver” approach to budget cutting — and to answer GOP criticisms he hasn’t reached out to them on major policy disputes.

A spokesman for Boehner suggested Obama should instead focus his efforts on Senate Democrats, noting that while the House has passed a pair of sequester replacement bills, the upper chamber has passed none.

“If he wants to avert the sequester, shouldn’t the President be focused on the House of Congress that HASN’T acted, and where his own political party holds the majority?” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an email.

The Speaker has insisted repeatedly that the House will not act again to replace the automatic cuts until a plan passes the Senate. But the odds of a deal in the Senate are slim, with McConnell saying that he is “not interested in an eleventh-hour negotiation.”

“It’s pretty clear to me that the sequester is going to go into effect,” McConnell told reporters last week.

Partisans can choose which side is to blame (not a hard bet to place in Vegas on which side each group of partisans will choose). But it does seem to be that Obama is pulling out all campaign stops to generate pressure on Congress and GOPers want to give the party’s base what it wants.
The Huffington Post:

Signaling an attempt to break an impasse, President Barack Obama on Thursday placed calls to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell about the looming spending cuts set to kick in on March 1. Neither side reported progress, however, and aides taunted each other with Twitter messages.

The outreach was Obama’s first in weeks to top Republicans in Congress. They came as both parties remained in a stalemate over how to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts that would trim $85 billion from most government accounts.

White House spokesman Jay Carney revealed the calls Thursday, describing them as “good conversations.” But neither he nor top Republican aides offered details about the discussions, the kind of restraint that has in the past indicated a move toward genuine negotiations. Obama also spoke to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday, though aides said both men speak frequently.

Obama sounded cautious about chances for a breakthrough during a Thursday interview with television and radio talk show host Al Sharpton.

“At this point, we continue to reach out to the Republicans and say this is not going to be good for the economy, and it’s not going to be good for ordinary people,” Obama said. “But I don’t know if they’re going to move, and that’s what we’re going to have to try to keep pushing over the next seven, eight days.”

  

27 Comments

  1. As I see it the GOP has left him no choice, and painted themselves into a corner. For Obama’s entire first term, they stopped everything they could, even bennies for 9/11 first responders and fully funded plans to employ veterans, things one would consider no brainers. There could be no clearer case that negotiating with them is pointless, and if he can ram things down their throats to get things done, that is definitely the course he should take. In fact not doing so at this point would be a sign of incompetence on Obama’s part. Anyone who thinks that he should be trying to still win them over with rhetoric has clearly not been paying attention to the GOP agenda and playbook of the last 4 years.

  2. The President is putting pressure on the GOP by appealing to the public because so far that’s the only thing that has worked to get them to do anything besides obstructing everything in the name of ideological purity. I don’t see any of the articles that criticize Obama’s “campaigning” pointing this out. This costs them credibility, IMO.

  3. slamfu nailed it!

    Obama’s fact filled ‘bully pulpit’ vs FoxNews / the Republicans lie infested and intentionally misleading ‘BS pulpit’.

    And, as to be expected, there are those who ask if Obama’s going too far in his ‘harsh treatment’ of those ‘thoughtful people’ on the right… Goooooood night!

    Edit to add: Jim nailed it too.

  4. Keep in mind ‘bully pulpit’ does NOT mean a platform to bully/harass the weak it means a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda.

    Bully Pulpit

    A bully pulpit is a position sufficiently conspicuous to provide an opportunity to speak out and be listened to.
    .
    This term was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to the White House as a “bully pulpit”, by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda. Roosevelt famously used the word bully as an adjective meaning “superb” or “wonderful”, a more common usage in his time than it is today. (Another expression which survives from this era is “bully for you”, synonymous with “good for you”.)

  5. Every time Obama takes a public stand on immigration, he makes it that much more difficult for Republican members of Congress to support it.

    I’m sorry but that’s completely BS logic. Obama isn’t making it more difficult for the Republicans to support immigration reform, the Republicans are making it more difficult for themselves to support anything Obama says because it is THEIR CHOICE to be antagonistic obstructionist jerks.

  6. Yeah, what Slamflu, JimS, SteveK, and Clarkma5 said.

    Most of his first term Pres Obama tried to get Republicans to negotiate. The fact has finally sunk in that they’re just giving him the middle-finger on anything. He’s doing the right thing in standing firm on a moderate platform and letting the GOP whine and continue to look like spoiled children.

    Stand firm Mr President, stand firm.

  7. He has been so certain of his campaign skills that he didn’t open a line of communication with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell until Thursday, a week before the spending ax hits. And when they did finally hear from Obama, the calls were perfunctory, with no request to step up negotiations or invitations to the White House.

    Obama’s last four years of trying to reach across the aisle reminds me of the John Powers adage, “Worrying is the same thing as banging your head against the wall. It only feels good when you stop.”

    How much does the President have to bash his proverbial head before the country realizes it’s for naught?

  8. I think Obama’s theme song for his second term should be “Stuck in the Middle with You,” by Stealers Wheel:

    Clowns to the left of me,
    Jokers to the right, here I am,
    Stuck in the middle with you.

    He’s got inept Senate leadership on both sides, a House of Reps who barely want to be in the same room with people on the other side of the aisle. Then, you’ve got the media acting like getting into a lather over not being allowed to follow the President on the golf course and painting repeated pictures of “false equivalencies” on the President as he has tried to work with the minority party while they refuse to engage unless he accedes completely to their proposals, no compromise. Pundits try to claim that PBO is aloof and doesn’t do enough “back-slapping” and attend social engagements. Um..with this particular childish and bickering crowd that Article I has bestowed on us, if I had the choice between being more of a social recluse or a social butterfly, I’d probably be closer to the former like our President. His time is better spent figuring out ways to solving the country’s problems with as little interaction from Congress as possible.

  9. clarkma5, you beat me to it. That’s another point I wanted to make. Charlie Cook is supposed to be such a great analyst and he makes that big a logical mistake? Sheeesh.

  10. So i guess you guys are not going to agree with me that POB (I like that) lives in an Ivory Tower. Lest you forget: ” From the 19th century it has been used to designate a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life. As such, it usually carries pejorative connotations of a wilful disconnect from the everyday world; esoteric, over-specialized, or even useless research; and academic elitism, if not outright condescension.” The POB’s bully pulpit definitely differs from TR’s version since his may be the new normal of Facebooks, Twitters and blogs delivered from Mt. Olympus, although he does come down occasionally to do a round or two with gods of golf and entertainment.
    If this is overly snarky, consider that you guys have the uphill advantage and numbers.

  11. @dduck, while I agree that PBO has some detachment from the lawmakers on the Hill, I think a lot of this is more of an effect of their actions rather than a cause of his personality. According to many people outside of the Capitol building who have met him, he’s pretty engaging, easy-going, and personable. George W. Bush became very similar in his aloofness (after suffering from pervasive online ridicule from some otherwise minor gaffes) where just about every President before these two were compartmentalize the daily BS and minutiae from the actual act of governing in a partnership with Congress.

    The difference between the last two Presidents and their predecessors, is how much more pervasive social media and traditional media have become making every little move by the President fodder for the opposition. Ergo, we get a very guarded and closed-off Executive branch. It won’t surprise me if the next President is just as guarded and choreographed as this one and the latter years of President Bush’s administration were.

  12. To think… 60 years ago the President, living in Blair House (across the street from the White House), could put on his hat and walk to work.

  13. brc said; ” According to many people outside of the Capitol building who have met him, he’s pretty engaging, easy-going, and personable.”
    I would rather have an on the job not so easy going or personable Pres., say like a LBJ or even a Clinton, so things get done and talking (read BS) is minimized.
    At least POB has Biden to get his hands dirty vicariously.

  14. (read BS)? LOL.

    To quote an unknown Japanese philosopher, “If you believe everything you read, better not read.”

    Harry walked to work.

  15. @SteveK, Which I don’t believe PHT was allowed to do after the assassination attempt on his life on Nov. 1, 1950 (though I could be mistaken).

  16. @ brcarthey – Your point?

  17. none. it’s cool that he could do it before the attempt and disappointing he couldn’t do it after. apologies if an offense was made.

  18. What I saw during the first year of Obama’s first term, is that he tried in vain to reach across the aisle to gain any support at all for the ACA. If one reads the biographical material about him, it is often noted that he believes strongly in the value of compromise—even when advocating as a community organizer in Chicago.

    Republicans still resent that he passed the health care bill almost entirely without their support, even though, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, he constantly sought Republican support, rather than immediately using his majority to ram through any bill that he could. He even followed this course while Ted Kennedy was dying—a big improvement demonstrated by his many extended olive branches. This is more than you can say for GW and his extremely partisan Presidency.

    considering the obstructionist tone in DC perhaps Obama’s only recourse is to come across as sort of aloof. If he reigns from Mr. Olympus, it is only because each time he has attempted to accommodate the GOP it has lead to frustration and dissapointment. So, the fact that he is now using his bully pulpit effectively is a positive sign that he has, at last, wised up to the disdain for compromise from most Congressmen on Capitol Hill!

  19. Some good comments from Petew, slamfu and Jim S. There appears to be a lot of personal animus aimed towards Obama from Republicans on the Hill. That’s why O sent Biden to work out the compromise on taxes– he wanted it to succeed, and hoped that Biden could smooth things over enough to get something done.
    Obama told us during his last campaign that he could not change Washington from the inside, so he would have to try to change it from the outside. It appears that its working since almost all of the items on his agenda have at least 51% of voters’ support. He is doing this because its the only avenue left open to him, since the GOP has fallen back on its tactic of total obstructionism.
    Now, they are working on filibustering some of his Cabinet nominees which is unprecedented. Filibustering Hagel is not going to work– so now Rand Paul has announced that he might want to filibuster Brennan.
    Not seeing too much of the new and improved Republican Party, just one that is in the jaws of obstructionist Tea Party radicals.

  20. After making my last comment, I began to wonder if Obama ever really had a super-majority in the Senate. According to an article and video by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm posted in the Hunffington post, as of 10-01-12, due to various unexpected events—such as Senator Arlen Specter becoming a Democrat, The hospitalization of West Virginian Senator Byrd, The death of Ted Kennedy, and the delayed election of Minnesota’s Al Franken (who theoretically provided the 60th seat, during the absence of Byrd)— the only time Obama really had a super-majority during his first two years was the few months between Paul Kirk’s temporary occupation of Senator Kennedy’s seat and when Republican Scott Brown was actually elected to that seat in Feb if 2010.

    During these few months when Obama had absolute control of Congress he did not hurry to pass the ACA, but rather attempted to gain some solid bi-partisan support. But, obviously Republicans turned down any request for such support because they saw the value of obstructing the passage of the bill. President Obama’s only mistake was in actually wanting some real consensus across the aisles to validate his health care legislation. When that didn’t arrive, Democrats used some legal maneuvers to pass it anyway. Although Republicans extremely resented this power play, Democrats had been trying for decades to pass comprehensive health care reforms and they were not about to let their last chance slip by.

    As far as Obama’s general willingness to compromise on other issues, PolitiFAct has a list of dozens, perhaps more than a hundred, instances when Obama compromised with the GOP to pass important legislation. So, while it’s true that Republicans finally agreed to some tax increases on those making more than $400,000 a year, this was only accomplished because Obama budged on his $250,000 goal. All in all, I see Obama as representing the only adult in the room or, on the Hill. He’s always tried to compromise. So, changing to the pragmatic use of his bully pulpit represents a practical and unavoidable change in strategy.

  21. BB, : “Obama told us during his last campaign that he could not change Washington from the inside, so he would have to try to change it from the outside.” And he is being criticized for it already by people like this: “It just smells,” said Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, which advocates tighter regulation of campaign money. “The president is setting a very bad model setting up this organization.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02.....&_r=0

    petew said: “Democrats had been trying for decades to pass comprehensive health care reforms.” You may recall that Teddy Kennedy, a Dem, blocked Universal Health reform twice, once under Nixon and again under Carter.

  22. You may recall that Teddy Kennedy, a Dem, blocked Universal Health reform twice, once under Nixon and again under Carter.

    Other than the fact that neither the Nixon or Carter Plans were Universal Health reform… And that Watergate and Carter losing re-election are why health care got put on the back burner.

    You are right though, Kennedy’s holding out for an ‘actual’ Universal Health Care plan did delay health care in America and Kennedy said later that walking away from that deal [with Nixon] was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

    Recalling the Nixon-Kennedy health plan
    .
    [...]
    .
    Nixon had other reasons, beside his dead brothers, to support reform. Medicare had just been passed, and many Americans expected universal health care to be next.
    .
    “We had the same problems then as we have now,” Altman said. “A lot of people uninsured, and health care costs were considered too high.”
    .
    Ted Kennedy, whom Nixon assumed would be his rival in the next election, made universal health care his signature issue. Kennedy proposed a single-payer, tax-based system. Nixon strongly opposed that on the grounds that it was un-American and would put all health care “under the heavy hand of the federal government.”
    .
    Instead, Nixon proposed a plan that required employers to buy private health insurance for their employees and gave subsidies to those who could not afford insurance. Nixon argued that this market-based approach would build on the strengths of the private system.
    .
    “Government has a great role to play, he said, “but we must always make sure that our doctors will be working for their patients and not for the federal government.”
    .
    No one breathed a word at the time about Nixon’s plan being unconstitutional. Instead, it faced opposition from Democrats who insisted on “single-payer.”
    .
    Over time, Kennedy realized his own plan couldn’t succeed. Opposition from the insurance companies was too great. So Kennedy dispatched his staffers to meet secretly with Nixon’s people to broker a compromise. Kennedy came close to backing Nixon’s plan, but turned away at the last minute, under pressure from the unions. Then Watergate hit and took Nixon down. Kennedy said later that walking away from that deal was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
    .
    “That was the best deal we were going to get,” Kennedy told me before he died. “Nothing since has ever come close.”

  23. Steve K,

    thanks again for all the pertinent information. I understand that many who advocate for universal health coverage claim that a single payer system is the only way to really accomplish that goal, and Kennedy obviously shared similar doubts about market based plans working in concert with the private health care system. However, undoubtedly he would have voted for Obamacare, if he had lived long enough to do so.

    One might also say, that the entire ACA, was another compromise made by Obama in order to achieve some degree of actual progress in the absence a single payer system. We all know that the new health care program is going to encounter many snags and changes before it actually lowers health care costs for most Americans, but if you haven’t got a perfect system, it still doesn’t make sense to throw away one that is going to need some work to succeed!

  24. Kennedy’s ‘walking away’ at Chappaquiddick was probably a little bigger deal than walking from universal health care and Nixon. Incredible the man had the opportunity to speak with Nixon, let alone walk away.

  25. petew, single payor health care is on the way. Private insurance will be driven out of business in the next few years under current laws. Some think this is good news, others are less convinced. Time will tell. I hope Obamacare lowers the cost of health care soon as mine has gone up 14% in the last twelve months.

  26. There appears to be a lot of personal animus aimed towards Obama from Republicans on the Hill.

    Obama inherited the animus just as he inherited so many other GOP generated problems. The obstruction and general madness would have been just as bad (if not worse) under a Hillary administration. The GOP hates democrats, and therefore won’t cooperate with them. It’s that simple.

    single payer health care is on the way

    Sure would like to see it in my lifetime..

  27. z, if nothing changes, you will see a single payer system, relatively soon. In the mean time, we will see higher rates, less access and a lower standard of care.

    To be clear, I do see the value in the single payer system — more so if it were not fee for service; but the bill is so poorly written that implementation will be very uncomfortable. Still, I can live with that.

    I might even agree that the whole transition to Obamacare is worth the pain. I think when a President takes advantage of the voters trust it is a problem. It is the reason some resented Bush so much; and I think it is one of the reasons some resent Obama the way they do.

    I wonder if that makes sense? I think it’s helpful to try and understand why some people get so upset that they seem to act unreasonably. Same in interpersonal relationships. It’s like mediators or divorce attorneys try to understand the ‘unreasonable’ rancor as a marriage dissolves.

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