Tag Archives: bully pulpit

21st Century Leadership

President Obama gives one speech after another on important issues: Guantanamo, the NSA, jobs and the economy, race relations. But then…nothing. No bills are proposed. He just talks…as if talking were enough. In other words, he governs the way he campaigned —€” purely based on platitudes. And apparently it’s enough.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Leading From the Back

Obama Accepts 21st Century View of Gay Marriage

In the BDSM world the phrase “topping from the bottom” means conditional submission: when the sub questions or disobeys the instructions of his or her dom. Subverting the submissive role defeats the whole purpose of a BDSM relationship; it is thus frowned upon.

President Obama frequently engages in the political equivalent: leading from the back.

True leaders lead. They declare what society needs and tells it what it should want. Leaders anticipate what is possible. They open the space where long-held dreams intersect with current reality, allowing progress. “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” Emerson advised.

The role of a leader has been clearly defined since the first time a member of a clan convinced his tribe they should follow him if they wanted to find more food. So why has it been so long since we Americans had real one?

In recent decades we have had two kinds of political leaders, bullies and followers. Beginning with Nixon but more so with Reagan and George W. Bush, Republican presidents have been bullies. Unwilling or unable to achieve the consensus of the majority for their radical agendas, they got what they wanted by any means necessary—corrupting the electoral process, lying, smearing opponents, and fear-mongering.

The Democrats—Carter, Clinton, and Obama—have been followers, and thus far less effectual. Leaders from the back.

Carter was the proto-triangulator, tacking right as a hawk on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis, while ignoring his liberal supporters. Clinton famously relied on toe-sucking Machiavellian pollster Dick Morris to develop stances and market memes that synced up exactly with public opinion on micro mini wedge issues. Both men left office without any major accomplishments—unless you count their sellouts to the Right (beginning “Reagan”‘s defense build-up, NAFTA, welfare reform).

Obama’s decision to come out in favor of gay marriage is classic Morris-style “leading from the back.”

“Public support for same-sex marriage is growing at a pace that surprises even professional pollsters as older generations of voters who tend to be strongly opposed are supplanted by younger ones who are just as strongly in favor,” notes The New York Times. “Same-sex couples are featured in some of the most popular shows on television, without controversy.”

No wonder: the latest Pew Research poll shows that 47 percent of voters support gay marriage, versus 43 percent against. (Among swing voters—of more interest to the Obama campaign—support is 47-to-39 percent in favor.)

“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage,” Obama said days before the 2008 election. At that time, Americans were running 40-to-56 percent against allowing same-sex couples to wed.

I can’t read his mind, but I bet Obama was OK with gay marriage in 2008. Like most other educated people. Cynically and wrongly, he sided with anti-gay bigots because he thought it would help him win.

The president’s change of ideological heart was painfully awkward. “I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” he told ABC. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word ‘marriage’ was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth.”

But now that’s changed, he said. “It is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

If Obama was a real leader, he wouldn’t care about offending “a lot of people”—i.e., right-wing homophobes. He would have gotten out front of the issue four years ago, when it mattered. The truth is, Vice President Joe Biden’s unscripted remarks a few days ago forced the issue.

Maybe Biden has the makings of a leader.

Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay weddings. True, the president’s statement may hasten the demise of the vile Defense of Marriage Act, which blocks federal recognition of gay marriage (and which Obama’s Justice Department defended in June 2009). But it comes too late to be meaningful.

Gay marriage was a historical inevitability before Obama spoke.

That hasn’t changed.

“For thousands of supporters who donated, canvassed and phone-banked to help elect Barack Obama, this is a powerful reminder of why we felt so passionately about this president in the first place,” said Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, a pro-Democratic Party interest group.

Maybe so. I don’t see it that way. I see a nation that led itself on this issue. The public debated and thought and finally, at long last, concluded that gays and lesbians deserve equal treatment before the law.

Obama didn’t lead us. We led him.

So tell me—what good is he, exactly?

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: A President Who Doesn’t Even Try

Is Obama Kowtowing to the Right? Or Is He One of Them?

The President’s progressive critics blame him for continuing and expanding upon his Republican predecessor’s policies. His supporters point to the obstructionist, Republican-controlled Congress. What can Obama do? He’s being stymied at every turn.

The first problem with the it’s-the-GOP’s-fault defense is that it asks voters to suffer short-term memory loss. In 2009, you probably recall, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. By a sizeable majority. They even had a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate. His approval ratings were through the roof; even many Republicans who had voted against him took a liking to him. The media, in his pocket, wondered aloud whether the Republican Party could ever recover. “Rarely, if ever, has a President entered office with so much political wind at his back,” Tim Carney wrote for the Evans-Novak Political Report shortly after the inauguration.

If Obama had wanted to pursue a progressive agenda—banning foreclosures, jailing bankers, closing Guantánamo, stopping the wars, pushing for the public option he promised in his healthcare plan—he could have. He had ample political capital, yet chose not to spend it.

Now that Congress is controlled by a Republican Party in thrall to its radical-right Tea Party faction, it is indeed true that Obama can’t get routine judicial appointments approved, much less navigate the passage of legislation. Oh-so-conveniently, Obama has turned into a liberal-come-lately. Where was his proposed Buffett Rule (which would require millionaires with huge investment income to pay the same percentage rate as middle-class families) in 2009, when it might have stood a chance of passage?

Team Obama’s attempt to shore up his liberal base also falls short on the facts. Progressives were shocked by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling, along party lines, that legalized strip-searches and body cavity rapes by police and private security firms who detain people suspected of any crime, even minor traffic infractions.

“What virtually none of this…commentary mentioned,” reported Glenn Greenwald in Salon, “was that that the Obama DOJ [Department of Justice] formally urged Court to reach the conclusion it reached…this is yet another case, in a long line, where the Obama administration was able to have its preferred policies judicially endorsed by getting right-wing judges to embrace them.”

No wonder Obama stayed mum.

Which brings us to the biggest, yet least discussed, flaw in the attempt to pin Obama’s inaction on the heads of Congressional Republicans: the bully pulpit.

Whether Donald Trump likes it or not, Barack Obama is still president. If he calls a press conference to call attention to an issue, odds are that reporters will show up. But he’s not walking tall or even talking big.

Responding to fall 2011 polls that indicated softening support among the younger and more liberal voters who form the Democratic base, Obama’s reelection strategists began rolling out speeches inflected with Occupy-inspired rhetoric about class warfare and trying to make sure all Americans “get a fair shot.” But that’s all it is: talk. And small talk at that.

Instead of introducing major legislation, the White House plans to spend 2012 issuing presidential orders about symbolic, minor issues.

Repeating Clinton-era triangulation and micro-mini issues doesn’t look like a smart reelection strategy. The Associated Press reported: “Obama’s election year retreat from legislative fights means this term will end without significant progress on two of his 2008 campaign promises: comprehensive immigration reform and closing the military prison for terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Piecemeal presidential directives are unlikely to make a sizeable dent in the nation’s 8.6 percent unemployment rate or lead to significant improvements in the economy, the top concern for many voters and the issue on which Republican candidates are most likely to criticize Obama. In focusing on small-bore executive actions rather than ambitious legislation, the president risks appearing to be putting election-year strategy ahead of economic action at a time when millions of Americans are still out of work.”

Of course, Obama may prevail. Romney is an extraordinarily weak opponent.

For progressives and leftists, however, the main point is that Obama never tries to move the mainstream of ideological discourse to the left.

Obama has been mostly silent on the biggest issue of our time, income inequality and the rapid growth of the American underclass. He hasn’t said much about the environment or climate change, the most serious problem we face—and one for which the U.S. bears a disproportionate share of the blame. Even on issues where he was blocked by Congress, such as when Republicans prohibited the use of public funds to transport Gitmo detainees to the U.S. for trials, he zipped his lips.

It isn’t hard to imagine a president launching media-friendly crusades against poverty or global warming. FDR and LBJ did it, touring the country, appointing high-profile commissions and inviting prominent guests to the White House to draw attention to issues they cared about.

In 2010, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez invited flood victims to move into his presidential palace. Seven years after Katrina, Gulf Coast residents are still waiting for help. What if Obama opened up the Lincoln Bedroom to a homeless family? The media couldn’t ignore a PR stunt like that.

Obama has mostly shunned the time-honored strategy of trapping your opposition by forcing them vote against your popular ideas. In 2009, for example, it would have been smarter politics—and better governance—to push for real socialized medicine, or at least ObamaCare with the public option he promised. He would either have wound up with a dazzling triumph, or a glorious defeat.

Liberals don’t blame Obama for not winning. They blame him for not trying. When he does crazy things like authorizing the assassinations of U.S. citizens without trial, progressives have to ask themselves: Is this guy kowtowing to the Right? Or is he one of them?

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Teddy Roosevelt Saw This Coming

The Decline and Fall of an American Icon

Why did our political system become so corrupt and unresponsive? How did we end up with such a rigid, Old European-style class system—in which you can’t get ahead unless you were born that way? America: What Went Wrong?, a 1992 paperback by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, went a long way toward answering those questions.

It may be, however, that America was doomed long before then.

The historian Edmund Morris recently published the final entry of a magisterial trilogy about the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Though frequently listed among the greatest American politicians today, TR was an “accidental president” who ascended to power thanks to the murder of William McKinley. His blustery and impolitic style—his supporters called it speaking truth to power—would never have allowed him to win a presidential election.

Roosevelt sussed out the perils of unregulated capitalism early on. “The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them wherever need of such control is shown but it is in duty bound to control them,” he said in 1901.

No president since Nixon has followed TR’s advice. The result of unbridled corporate corruption is disparity of wealth worse than much of the Third World, and 20 percent unemployment.

Morris’ book Colonel Roosevelt addresses TR’s life after leaving the presidency in 1909: his 1912 run as on the independent Bull Moose ticket, his disastrous expedition through the Amazon, and finally the decline of this legendary dynamo after the start of World War I reordered the international landscape and doomed him to political irrelevance: a career bookended by assassins’ bullets.

Few presidents are as revered by both the left and the right. Liberals love TR for his record as an environmentalist and trust-buster. Conservatives like his unapologetic imperialism: the American empire as we know it began with Roosevelt.

Although it describes events that took place a century ago, this new biography shines light on many of the systemic ills that afflict the United States today.

On the domestic front it is brutally disheartening to read that even a figure as historically transcendent and contemporaneously popular as Theodore Roosevelt found it impossible to break the lock of the two major parties on the political process. As schoolchildren learn, the Bull Moose Party marks the apex of third party attempts in presidential politics. In 1912 it was an empty farce.

Along with their allied press barons, the Republican and Democratic Party machines blocked the charismatic (albeit longwinded) ex-Rough Rider every step of the way, rendering Roosevelt’s third-party defeat as much of a foregone conclusion as Nader’s.

During the Bull Moose run Roosevelt was shot at close range as he arrived for a campaign appearance in Milwaukee. The bullet, slowed by the printed text of the 50-page speech folded over in his jacket pocket, had nevertheless “pinked” the former president.

Morris’ description of TR’s grace under fire inspires awe: “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here,” Roosevelt shouted to men restraining his would-be assassin as he hoisted himself to his feet.

“Let’s go the hospital,” urged an aide.

“You get me to that speech,” Roosevelt replied, Morris says, “with a savage rasp to his voice.”

“[The bullet wound] was a ragged, dime-sized hole, bleeding slowly, about an inch below and to the right of his right nipple. The bullet was nowhere to be seen or palpated. The whole right side of his body had turned black,” Morris writes.

TR took the podium. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,” he said, going on to speak for an hour and fifteen minutes.

We have lost so much. Contrast TR’s courageous performance after being shot to our so-called “leaders.” On 9/11 George W. Bush abandoned Washington, fleeing into internal exile, hopscotching the nation like a coward before slinking back to the capital half a day later.

Roosevelt spent his last years hurling scathing critiques of Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance to enter World War I on the side of Britain and France. Nearly 100 years ago, however, the bellicose Roosevelt harbored no proto-neocon-like delusions about American exceptionalism—the nauseating combination of high-blown rhetoric and gutter-rat real-world actions that characterizes foreign policy of the United States and sparks outrage around the globe.

“He scoffed at the hypocrisy of Wilson’s grand-sounding phrase ‘self-determination for all peoples’ [in Wilson’s Fourteen Points], noting that the President was in no hurry to grant liberty to Haiti or Santo Domingo.” Both were under U.S. military occupation.

Were such self-awareness in greater supply in the U.S. today, we might not be fighting wars of aggression on three fronts at the same time we’re lecturing other countries about sovereignty and human rights.

Roosevelt’s martial spirit was his blind spot.

Unlike most Americans today, he had served valiantly. His bravery was unquestioned. One of his greatest disappointments was Wilson’s refusal to allow him to fight in the Great War.

Despite his experience in battle TR shared with today’s armchair “support our troops” “U-S-A” warriors an excess of willingness to send others to face shells and poison gas—without fully internalizing the consequences.

Despite being sidelined, Roosevelt pushed his sons to enlist and get to the fighting. Then his son Quentin, a pilot, got shot down. “Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the Front and had a chance to render some service to his country, and to show the stuff there was in him before his fate befell him,” he told the press.

But the cold reality of Quentin’s permanent absence marked the beginning of the end of a man known for his vigor. “The old side of him is gone, the old exuberance, the boy in him has died,” a friend noted the day after he learned of his son’s death. “I am not what I was,” TR confessed to his sister.

Two years later Roosevelt was dead, a victim of the American militarism he extolled and symbolized.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL