During the interview, Lewis says that President Obama told him that the bully pulpit is broken. He said that is partly because of our polarized media, but also ties in to this whole Republican strategy of obstruction. The President knew that the minute he proposed something – even if it was originally a Republican idea – they would oppose it. And the louder he fought for it, the more strenuous their objections would be.
My take on that would be that it opens the door to a powerful strategy for Democrats in a campaign. And we’ve seen the President use that opportunity very well over the last few months in making this a choice election rather than a referendum.
But when you need to actually get something done legislatively – like a stimulus or health care reform – it means that using the bully pulpit to advocate for policies can actually work against you.
But then in the article, President Obama explains it even further.
He admits that he has been guilty, at times, of misreading the public. He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them. He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president. But the idea that he might somehow frighten Congress into doing what he wanted was, to him, clearly absurd. “All of these forces have created an environment in which the incentives for politicians to cooperate don’t function the way they used to,” he said. “L.B.J. operated in an environment in which if he got a couple of committee chairmen to agree he had a deal. Those chairmen didn’t have to worry about a Tea Party challenge. About cable news. That model has progressively shifted for each president. It’s not a fear-versus-a-nice-guy approach that is the choice. The question is: How do you shape public opinion and frame an issue so that it’s hard for the opposition to say no. And these days you don’t do that by saying, ‘I’m going to withhold an earmark,’ or ‘I’m not going to appoint your brother-in-law to the federal bench.’”
So lets break that down a bit, shall we? First of all, President Obama – like VP Biden – was aware of the Republican strategy of obstruction from the beginning of his term. All that mess about him being naive was ridiculous from the get-go. Where he calculated wrong was in thinking that the American people (and the media, I might add) would hold Republicans accountable for that. In other words, he had the audacity to believe that a party that was willing to sacrifice the good of the American people (during the worst recession of our lifetimes) for their own political ends, would eventually pay a price. Imagine that!
But then he gets all up in some arguments we heard for years from disgruntled leftists. You remember … all those folks that thought that if he just acted more like LBJ in his wheeling and dealing he could kick some Republican ass. What he’s saying is that the threat of a Tea Party primary challenge and/or getting blasted on Faux News was more of a threat to them than any little goodie he might hold out or withhold to gain their support. All he had was the possibility of enough of us joining him to hold their feet to the fire.
This is President Obama articulating what those of us who call ourselves “pragmatic progressives” have been saying all along. If more of those lefties (who were so focused on pressuring Obama) had trained their efforts on pressuring Republicans to move or be shamed in the court of public opinion, we might have helped him bust their stranglehold on gridlock.
Let’s not make that mistake again!
More on the article Obama’s Way by Michael Lewis: