The Speechless President

Like so many others, I had high hopes for our current President. After his predecessor, he seemed like such a breath of fresh air. But it is beginning to appear as though that’s all he is: “a breath of air.” Except for his annual appearance on ESPN picking the winners in the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament (seriously?) one hardly knows he’s around. However, he does have considerable speech-making abilities and is able to hold the attention of an audience and make his points in a most persuasive way, so this gives rise to a question I have had for some time.

Given the unwillingness of this Congress — especially the House of Representatives — to cooperate in any way with the sitting President (for whatever reasons), why doesn’t the President use his powers of persuasion and the ready availability of the TV networks to make his case to the American people to put pressure on a recalcitrant Congress? Recall the ability of Ronald Reagan in this regard (old “Teflon Ron”): he was forever going on TV and pleading with the American public to have them write or call their representatives to get things done. And it worked: it boosted his popularity and got the people involved. In fact, we can go back to FDR’s use of the radio to get the public behind him as Churchill was able to do in England. These men knew the power of their position combined with the power of the airwaves and they used them to their advantage.

There was one time, especially, when Obama could have made use of his considerable speech-making abilities and the magic of television to get the American public involved in one of his pet causes. I refer of course to gun control and wonder why, after Sandy Hook when the American public was outraged, the President didn’t go on TV and urge folks to get behind his efforts to push some sort of gun-control legislation through a refractory Congress backed by the considerable power of the NRA. Public polls showed that the American public was overwhelmingly behind some sort of gun controls — at the very least some sort of waiting period, including checks on those who would purchase guns. But it didn’t happen, and despite a good deal of public posturing and a smattering of small, ineffective, steps on the President’s part, nothing happened at the federal level. The issue is not whether or not gun controls could help prevent the madness that seems to have this country in its grips. The issue is why the President didn’t take advantage of the support he obviously had in the American public and “take on” the Congress and the NRA. After all, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In any event, the President complains about the lack of cooperation from this Congress and is out beating the campaign trails to raise money to get more sympathetic members of Congress during the mid-term elections to help him push through some of his favorite programs during his final years in office. But it’s not all about sympathetic members of Congress. It’s also about getting the apathetic American public more involved in the political process and the sitting President could play a vital role if (s)he chose to do so. There is considerable power out there sitting glued to television sets, and that power could have been tapped into a number of times during this man’s presidency. But it has not. One wonders if that power might even have been enough to thwart the growing influence of the monied interests who seem determined to buy this government and who silently line the pockets of politicians they know will surely answer the call when the time comes to push their narrow, all-for-profit agendas.

In the game that is power politics, Barack Obama has shown himself to be inept. Given his status and his opportunities together with the precedent for “going public” he has ignored one rather obvious avenue for courting political success: the sleeping giant that is the American public that might have been aroused by Obama’s considerable powers of persuasion, but who now sleeps on undisturbed and unconcerned.

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12 thoughts on “The Speechless President

  1. Hugh, I am disappointed in what he has been unable to do, but I give him a higher grade than you might. The way Congressional candidates are funded, they care little about what others think caring mostly about what their funders think. This tension has always been there, but I see it worse than before given the amount of money spent.

    With that said, he is not as adroit as LBJ or Reagan, who benefitted greatly from a personal, even if adversarial, relationship with Tip O’Neill as speaker. On the positive side, while the exchange phase was rolled out poorly at the outset, getting Obamacare passed and up and running will be looked back on as a major achievement in a couple of years. It is already showing success and has had earlier successes before 2014.

    He gets a lot of crap right now from the right on his foreign policy, but when experts speak they give him reasonable marks noting he has kept us out of wars, has pulled together European nations in concert to pressure Russia over the Ukraine, and started dialogue with Iran. Our reputation had fallen so low with the Bush years per surveys of other countries.

    And, while he has embraced a fossil fuel expansion in the US, he is at least doing some things about climate change and make it a visible issue that we need to deal with.

    The final downside that you and Barney emphasize is the drone and spying policies that need much greater governance than existed before Snowden and deaths of Americans abroad.

    He has definitely not met expectations, but I would pass him with a C grade, B minus in some respects, D minus in others given the adversaries against him from the right wing.

    Good, thought provoking post, BTG

  2. I’ve said for some time that the only thing this president actually does is make speeches. His flowery oratory is followed by complete inaction on his part, as though his job is done after the teleprompter is turned off, and somehow, magically, others will somehow get the job done.

    Sandy Hook is a perfect example. He made a personal appearance and wonderful speech, then walked away, later blaming the NRA, Congress, and everyone but himself for the failed gun control efforts.

    I, too, had high hopes for Obama. But his promises of a open and transparent presidency, his record setting deportations, NSA spying, Drone murders, and bailing out Wall Street while allowing Main Street to die prove how wrong I was.

  3. I would argue that Obama using nonstop televised addresses would not be as effective today as it would have been during President Reagan’s time.

    Media today is far more fragmented and targeted today than it was during Reagan’s time.

    Sites like Twitter are not so much forums for debate as they are echo chambers to reinforce what you already believe.

    • Thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t urge “non-stop” addresses. I would advocate well-timed addresses at key moments when the issue is of vital importance — such as the case of gun control, as mentioned.

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more, Hugh. Yes, he deserves kudos for finally getting something done about healthcare (still far from perfect), but I am hard-pressed to find anything else to praise him for. From gun control, to offshore drilling, to drones, bombing, and civil liberties, I am sorely disappointed in this wasted opportunity to effect “change.”

  5. … the American public … now sleeps on undisturbed and unconcerned.’
    that is so sad,,,
    president correa has a weekly radio talk, and most anyone driving a vehicle at that hour is tuned into that talk. the country seems more divided now in the thumbs up/thumbs down ratings for correa.

    would anyone tune in and listen to president obama if he gave a weekly radio address? and would most radio stations carry the address?

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