Sunday, April 10, 2016
On Being President
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written that what Teddy Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit" of the presidency is "somewhat diminished in our age of fragmented attention and fragmented media." I am an admirer of Goodwin's work, but I think she is wrong in that assessment.
The bully pulpit is as influential as ever — if not potentially moreso with so many means of communication available. Its relevance depends upon who has access to it and how it is applied.
I have been wondering — since before Barack Obama took office more than seven years ago — what it was about him that I found unpresidential. You see, for a long time, I wasn't able to put my finger on it.
If I had the opportunity to give him some advice today, I think I have a pretty good idea now what it is that has bothered me and what I would advise him to do. With about nine months left in his presidency, my guess is it wouldn't help much now. But it couldn't hurt.
There can be little doubt that, for some (but certainly not all) of his critics, Obama's skin color is, as many in the Democratic Party have frequently suggested, the issue. That is impossible to deny. Racism is an unfortunate element in the human equation. It always has been, and I suspect it always will be — like greed and lust and other unattractive qualities that take control of some people. Some folks do a better job of overcoming those negative qualities than others.
For a long time, I wondered if I was being racist because I found myself objecting so frequently to Obama's policies. The idea troubled me greatly because I was raised by liberal parents, and I always believed their values were my values. My mother was involved in promoting positive race relations in the Arkansas town in which I grew up, and I have always believed that, as a result of my upbringing, I am a tolerant person.
I soon concluded that I wasn't a racist, even if there were some in the Democratic Party who insisted on labeling everyone who objected to Obama policies a hater. More than once, I have voted for black candidates — and other candidates who differed from me in other ways — for office. When I think back on my voting history, I know that my votes have been decided by issues and political philsophies — and my political philosophy has evolved over time, as I suppose everyone's does. "The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20," Muhammad Ali once said, "has wasted 30 years of his life."
To issue a blanket assertion that anyone who objects to Obama's policies and his approach to his job is racist is to ignore some important facts, and much of it, I believe, has to do with fear, plain and simple.
People are genuinely frightened these days — they were frightened before Obama took office — and there is certainly a lot for them to fear. It doesn't matter whether the president thinks the fears are justified. It isn't enough to remind people of the phrases that past presidents used (i.e., FDR's "We have nothing to fear but fear itself") to calm jittery generation of long ago.
People want the president of their own time to recognize the legitimacy of their fears, to speak to them in a reasonable, not belittling, fashion and to keep them informed. Time after time Obama has come up short in this respect.
We live in an unprecedented age of instant information, but it hasn't always been that way. Presidents of the past were limited by the technology that existed in their times. Presidents have only been using television for about half a century, radio for about a century. In the first 150 years of America's existence, news traveled much more slowly; it took weeks, sometimes months for a president's remarks on a topic to reach citizens on the country's outskirts.
But people of the 21st century are plugged in to things in a way that their forebears never were. They can get up–to–the–minute information on just about any topic on their smart phones or laptops. But information is really all they get. They do get what passes for context — what journalism students are told is the elusive "why" of a news story — but it is usually political agenda disguised as context.
A president has to function above that.
Naturally, a president who is seeking re–election can be forgiven for allowing politics to permeate his remarks — but outside of the electoral battlefield, a president is expected to be respectful of people's fears, even if he doesn't share them.
A president is expected to act like the president of all the people, and far too many people have felt that this president only sees himself as president of a certain segment of the population — that, as far as this president is concerned, those who disagree with him can, in the memorable words of John Ehrlichman, "twist slowly in the wind."
Take the subject of terrorism, for example. Its purpose is to frighten people, and the videotaped beheadings and equally horrific executions have done the trick. So have the attacks that have been carried out in places like Brussels and Paris and San Bernardino.
When the president pays little attention and chooses to go golfing or dancing or to a baseball game instead of trying to engage the people, instead of explaining why he believes terrorism is not as great a threat as people perceive it to be, he may honestly believe that he is doing the right thing by not contributing to a chorus of hysterical voices.
But he is really fanning the flames. Fears go unchecked, and that leads to things like surges in gun purchases — which is the opposite of the outcome Obama has sought as president. So Obama's behavior in the face of terrorist attacks has been counterproductive.
Same with the economy and unemployment.
Few modern Americans, as a portion of the population, had experienced anything comparable to the Great Recession, and they were understandably alarmed to see their jobs disappearing, their life savings slipping away, their very homes being taken from them. Even those who lived through the economy of the late '70s and early '80s had not seen anything like it.
In such times, the American people expect reassurance from their leader, and today America's leader likes to brag of the unemployment rate being at 5%, but words from him were few and far between when unemployment was over 10%. Even if he had no news to report, he needed to do a 21st–century version of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats, telling people what he was doing to turn things around and what he planned to do in the future.
Instead they have been left in the dark by this president.
The president, whoever he or she may be, has enormous influence on people — even those who did not vote for him or her.
But the bully pulpit must be used in a way that unites a diverse population instead of dividing it. The presidents who have understood this are the ones who have earned a revered role in American history.