President Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase “Bully Pulpit” to describe the great opportunity provided by the presidency to rally the public to worthy causes. President Reagan used it to great effect, as did Democrat Presidents Kennedy and Clinton, but the opportunity seems lost on President Obama.
Obama’s failings in this regard were on grand display in his post-election press conference. Obama offered an analytical assessment of the election and signaled lower expectations over the next two years.
This was especially true with respect to addressing our nation’s energy and climate challenges.
Obama, in expressing his willingness to find common ground with Republicans, backtracked from pursuing comprehensive legislation to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, saying:
I think there are a lot of Republicans that ran against the energy bill that passed in the House last year. And so it’s doubtful that you could get the votes to pass that through the House this year or next year or the year after…what we’re probably going to have to do is say here are some areas where there’s just too much disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, we can’t get this done right now, but let’s not wait. Let’s go ahead and start making some progress on the things that we do agree on.
That is the type of assessment one might expect from a political pundit, but it is a sorry way for a president to start the last half of his term, assuming he really wants to get something done.
President Reagan did not publicly lower expectations in the face of a Democrat-controlled Congress. He took his case to the American public, sold his ideas, and asked them to pressure Congress.
Obama’s words and actions seem politically calculated to avoid risk.
During the effort to move climate legislation earlier this year, Obama shied away from getting behind specific legislation and signaled concessions far in advance, often undercutting the ability of allies to effectively negotiate.
There is a great case to be made for putting limits on GHG emissions to reduce our heavy dependence on finite fossil fuels, improve our national security, safeguard our atmosphere, and beat China to the punch by providing American companies the regulatory certainty needed to unlock investment in alternative energy and conservation technologies.
This is something that Americans of all political stripes could be convinced to support. Unfortunately, President Obama seems incapable of producing the passion, words or effort required to convincingly make that case to the public. “Yes, we can” has become “well, maybe, if someone else goes first.”
At the Berlin Wall, President Reagan did not say: “Mr. Gorbachev, if you’re up for it, and if the KGB wouldn’t mind, could you think about making this wall a bit shorter?”
We’re a long way from the days when Obama sounded like Moses in promising to slow down the rise of the seas.
This failure of leadership is not only a liability in advancing legislative solutions. It will also be a liability if some Republican leaders follow through on their threats to attack EPA and try to tie its hands with respect to regulating GHG emissions.
The public overwhelmingly supports strong environmental protections. By effectively using the bully pulpit, the president could use these attacks to go on the offense and challenge Congress to produce its own legislative solutions or shut up and let EPA fulfill its responsibilities under the Clean Air Act.
The president’s stated willingness to reach across the aisle would be a refreshing change from his overly partisan tactics of the past, but unless he can rally the public to put pressure on Republicans for real energy and climate solutions, Republicans will have no reason to move beyond partisan rhetoric—and the president’s lower expectations will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.