The Limits of Presidential Rhetoric.


(Flickr/The U.S. Army)

At Grist, Joe Romm rips into President Obama

Obama hasn't merely failed to get a climate bill. Given the self-described (and self-inflicted) "shellacking" the president received Tuesday, he has made it all but impossible for a return to such an alignment of the stars this decade.

Indeed, he has, arguably, poisoned the well for the next president, not merely because of the "shellacking," but also by his failure to use his bully pulpit to be an unabashed defender of climate and clean energy action. Team Obama helped create the broad-based misperception that those issues are political losers, in spite of every poll to the contrary, in spite of the fact that in the one place where a broad coalition combined with political leaders who were genuine climate hawks, Californians won the clean energy and climate trifecta, including a stunning 20-point win preserving their landmark cap-and-trade climate bill.

Of course, "get a climate bill" is shorthand for "move a climate bill through the Senate that's strong enough to matter, but weak enough to satisfy Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, and the whole cast of 'centrist' Democrats." Obama certainly made mistakes in not putting his full energy behind a climate bill, but before apportioning blame, you really have to account for the composition of the Senate, Harry Reid's failures, and the sheer amount of time it took to accomplish health care (again, thanks to the "centrist" Democrats).

But, I don't actually want to get into a fight about who is to blame for the lack of a climate bill. As a climate hawk, I feel comfortable saying all sides deserve some of the blame in this debacle. I just wanted to make a quick point about the so-called bully pulpit. All year -- and before then -- progressives have been worried/annoyed/angry over Obama's reticence to use the bully pulpit in service of his goals. "If only Obama would call out Republicans and demand a public option/climate bill/DADT repeal," goes the argument, "the public would respond and it would happen."

Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that the public isn't nearly as engaged or progressive as this argument suggests, there's a slight complication to this; the bully pulpit isn't nearly as effective as we think it is. George Edwards' On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit is a great resource here; despite the general assumption that presidential rhetoric affects public opinion in big ways, the truth is that presidents -- including the most effective communicators -- have a very hard time moving the public their way. To borrow Edwards' description, "chief executives are not directors who lead the public where it otherwise refuses to go. ... Instead, presidents are facilitators who reflect, and may intensify, widely held views.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were two very able communicators, and even they had a hard time with the public. Reagan couldn't pull the public toward his view that taxes were too high (support for the view declined throughout his presidency), and Clinton -- despite his strong rhetoric -- was completely unable to bring the public with him on his 1993 plan for economic stimulus. Public opinion was (and is) indifferent to climate change and hostile to cap and trade. Obama could have thrown the pulpit at the public, and it wouldn't have made a difference in his favor. Indeed, odds are good that it would have polarized existing opposition and made weak supporters think twice about their position.

I want to be clear; I'm not excusing the president or Democrats for their failures. On public opinion especially, it's almost certainly the case that they allowed Republicans to get the lead on defining cap and trade as "cap and tax." Still, it's important not to overstate the effect or importance of presidential rhetoric. Yes, the president is influential, but he's also very limited in ways that aren't obvious, but equally significant.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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