Thursday, January 21, 2010

Time for the bully pulpit -- Jan. 21, 2010 column


After the political earthquake in Massachusetts, President Barack Obama conceded he’d lost something larger than Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate. He’d lost touch with the people.

“We were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises...that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Wednesday.

The president acknowledged that many people feel remote and detached from Washington. He regrets it and plans to use his State of the Union address Wednesday night to “reset the tone.”

It’s surprising that someone with a gift for speech making hasn’t used the bully pulpit more effectively, but Obama said he made the mistake of thinking sound policy would speak for itself.

"I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law or if we're making a good rational decision here, then people will get it," he said.

His critics say people get it all right; it’s Obama’s policies they don’t like. The challenge for Obama as he begins in his second year in office is to restart the conversation.

As midterm elections loom, Obama has had only modest legislative success. The economy is still worrisome, and the lack of health care reform is a major disappointment.

As bad as it seems for Obama, though, it’s worse for Congress. A slight majority of people -- 56 percent -- like the way Obama is handling his job, according to a new AP-GfK Poll. But only 32 percent approve of the job Congress is doing.

Some presidents use the State of the Union address to drone on about policy initiatives. Obama needs to inspire. He needs poetry.

As corny as it sounds, he needs to remind us that this country’s greatness lies is its motto – “E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one. And then he needs to govern that way.

To clear his head, Obama could re-read his own 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention. That speech by an obscure candidate for the Senate from Illinois electrified the hall in Boston and propelled Obama on his meteoric rise to the White House just four years later.

He talked then about those who would slice and dice the nation. He declared that we are not liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, red states and blue states but the United States.

What’s been missing in the Obama presidency is a sense that we’re in this together.

For the last year, the focus in Washington has been on meetings behind closed doors, deal making and winners and losers. We’ve seen the president and Congress dole out goodies for certain companies and industries and even states. Most people believe the country is on the wrong track.

It’s galling in a time of 10 percent unemployment and a housing crisis to see banks that accepted taxpayer bailouts reward executives with huge bonuses. It’s damning the health care reform package with faint praise when members of the president’s party require special treatment in return for their votes.

Congressional Republicans, jubilant about their 41st vote in the Senate, immediately started digging in their heels against health care reform, environmental legislation and another stimulus package.

Liberal Democrats are urging Obama to get tough and ram health care through Congress with only Democratic support. The president suggested in the ABC interview that he would accept a stripped-down version, one that Republicans could support. That would force Republicans to show their hand. Are they really willing to bring change or will they remain the “party of no”?

In Massachusetts, Scott Brown promised to vote against reform, even though he supports his state’s health care program that was a model for the national plan. Since Massachusetts already has health-care reform, he says, it’s not fair for its residents to have to pay for other states.

That’s not change. That’s business as usual.

In Boston in 2004, Obama said, “alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.”

It’s time to hear again -- and live -- that quintessential American truth.

(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. The subtext of Marsha Mercer’s message here is for President Obama to “deal from strength.” The President is a gifted orator who also happens to be very intelligent. As we have seen, he is not comfortable in appearing as a divider and this has turned out to be a negative in the bare-knuckle octagon of contemporary Washington. Mercer uses words such as “inspire” and “poetry.” She is right, because bringing those qualities into the ring would bring in something that is nowhere else to be seen, and that uniqueness will get the attention.

  2. Marsha, your remarks are on-the-mark. I hope that the President can return to his 2004 Boston eloquence and make a State of the Union speech that will be seen by all as a new beginning for his presidency.