Overcoming the Poverty of Ambition

Presidents, and especially former presidents, sometimes say things that will surprise you.

One of the most surprising to many people, and one of the most thematically consistent, is the insistence of their claim to the weakness of the office.  In making that complaint, I believe it was Lyndon Johnson – one of the most powerful of American presidents, and the one who accomplished, for better or worse, far more than most of his colleagues in the position – who said in frustration something along the lines of, What can I do?  The only power that I have is the bomb, and I can’t use that’.

This consistent theme is remarkable for a variety of reasons, not least including the fact that these very same occupants join the rest of us in describing the office as the most powerful position on the planet.  And they are – again, for better or worse – accurate in saying so.

What explains this conundrum is that the president sits atop a country that is head and shoulders beyond every other country in the world in terms of economic, military, political and cultural power.  That may well not be the case in 2050, but it is now.  To take just one simple example, consider that the United States spends about $1 trillion per year on its military.  If you take all the other countries in the world – nearly 200 of them – and combine their spending on the military, together they equal about half of that amount.

At the same time the American president leads this incredibly powerful country, the office itself was designed by the Founders to be about as weak as possible – at least during peacetime – without the country falling apart altogether, as it had been doing under the even weaker Articles of Confederation.  Thus, the president’s institutional power is weak, but the country he leads is powerful.  And thus the conundrum of a presidency that seems simultaneously powerful and powerless.

Of course, presidents such as Roosevelt, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and especially the little Bush have massively expanded the power of the presidency, metastasizing it into a monster you’d be tempted to say that the Founders would no longer recognize.  Except, that they would.  It would probably look uncomfortably familiar to them, in fact.  The last George would remind them quite a bit of a George they came to know and hate, so much so that they twisted their new polity into pretzels of constitutional engineering in order to avoid replicating the British monarch.

They succeeded, and they failed.  Not for nothing that we’ve been referring for a generation or two now to the “imperial presidency”.  And, if Dick Cheney had had his way, that phrase would have been shortened by one word, simply to ‘Emperor’.  Building on a foundation established by the other aforementioned presidents, who radically changed the office from the nineteenth century model, Bush and Cheney arrogated more power to the American executive then even Nixon might have fantasized about.  And Barack Obama has so far displayed a somewhat troubling unwillingness to entirely renounce those claims.

In other words, it’s not your great-great-great-great-grandfather’s presidency, I’m afraid.  At the same time, I think we have to honestly say that the framework of the Founders remains remarkably intact, at least when there are men and women possessing the wisdom and the courage to perform their prescribed functions underneath that constitutional design.  To some degree, that is what we have today.  Even the Boy King wasn’t able to sell off Social Security to his Wall Street cronies, try as he might, because Congress said “no”.  He also wasn’t entirely able to run his sham kangaroo court system for detainees in his sham war on terrorism, either, because the Supreme Court said “no”.  And so on.

These are, of course, rather exceptional cases.  Generally, the American judiciary defers to the president with a high degree of regularity, especially on national security issues.  That’s not necessarily a good thing, but in reality, not much has changed in that regard since the founding of the country.

Congress, on the other hand, has shown itself to be more or less a complete disaster.  Republicans are all guts, and no wisdom, while Democrats have none of either.  The GOP has near total party discipline, and uses it to vote like an army of rigid automatons that would make members of the Borg Collective uncomfortable.  When they controlled Congress they gave Bush nearly everything he wanted – only choosing to block him when he wasn’t regressive enough – and they completely abdicated all of their responsibilities in terms of oversight, checks and balances, and good governance in any shape or form.  Democrats, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a profile in courage if it slapped them upside the head.  They took every fat opportunity Bush gave them to do the right thing and stand up for the interests of the American public, not to mention for a little thing called the law, and ran off into hiding instead.

All of that said, a little comparative analysis is still instructive in a big way.  This institution – even under Bush and Cheney – does not resemble Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Kim, Khomeini or Castro.  In truth, it doesn’t even resemble Gordon Brown.  The British prime minister – sometimes accurately referred to as an elected dictator – is a far more powerful institution than the American president.  There are no courts to strike down legislation or executive orders.  There are no states or provinces with which to share power in a federalist system.  There is no written constitution, per se, overtly proscribing certain governmental policies.  And, at least under normal circumstances, there is no separate legislative branch to defy the prime minister, since he or she has, by definition, a built-in majority there.

The simple fact is that America is a hugely powerful country, but there are serious limitations on the power of the American presidency.  And, as it turns out, the presidential power that is often the most significant is not even found in the Constitution.  It’s the bully pulpit.  It’s the power to persuade.  It’s the biggest soapbox in the world.  It’s all that, and actually a lot more.  Because the real power, the serious power, of the bully pulpit is not so much to argue for one position or another in an ongoing debate, but rather to put an issue on the table that wasn’t there before.  And then to frame the structure of discourse surrounding that issue.  Typically, if a president argues that we need to start thinking about something that hasn’t been on the agenda so far, it will instantly be on the agenda from that time forward.  And, typically, a president can also be extremely powerful in shaping the way we think about issues as well, which often constitutes more than half the battle when the issue is ultimately engaged.

I have written three columns about Barack Obama since he was inaugurated in January, including one just a week or two back.  Every one of them has been critical – including one which referred to him as “Obusha” in the title – and if I had to label the Obama presidency with one word so far, it would be “disappointing”.  It’s been this way for me since the beginning of his campaign.  I see his potential to be a great president, particularly given the crises which surround us at the moment, the hunger of the American people for honest leadership, and the near complete implosion of the Republican opposition.  And yet, I also see him consistently failing to act boldly.  Worse, he too frequently carries forward the horrific agenda of his predecessor, sometimes even exacerbating it.

And yet, every once in a while he does something that truly impresses me.  I think the first time I noticed this was his Philadelphia speech on race, which struck me as the most mature, adult conversation a president (or candidate) has had with his country in my lifetime.  In truth, I guess a lot of what he’s done that I’m impressed with has taken the form of speeches, rather than action.  In fairness, it’s pretty early for that latter agenda to bear fruit.  If he’s serious about national healthcare, leaving Iraq, or shutting down Guantánamo, those are things that cannot be done on short order, and I’m not bothered by the fact that they are only in motion rather than completed, four months into this presidency (assuming, that is, that they do get completed).

One could certainly make a good argument that I’m a naïve fool, easily placated by empty rhetoric, while the president’s real agenda is simply more of the same, only this time presented with a happy liberal face fronting predatory policies, rather than a snarling Dick Cheney.  I certainly can see the merit to that assertion, and I don’t even entirely disagree with it.  On the other hand, however – and this is really significant – it ignores the huge potential power of the bully pulpit.

I was reminded of this once again the other week, as Obama gave the commencement speech to graduating students at Arizona State University.  This is the paragraph that jumped out at me:

“You’re taught to chase after the usual brass rings, being on this ‘who’s who’ list or that top 100 list, how much money you make and how big your corner office is; whether you have a fancy enough title or a nice enough car.  Let me suggest that such an approach won’t get you where you want to go.  It displays a poverty of ambition, that in fact, the elevation of appearance over substance, celebrity over character, short-term gain over lasting achievement is precisely what your generation needs to help end.”

Maybe no one else will remember this one paragraph from this one speech.  Then again, that’s what another president from Illinois said about a certain speech he once delivered, and it, ahem, turned out a bit differently in the end.

We should not underestimate the power of the bully pulpit to shape discourse and therefore, ultimately, both culture and policy outcomes.  This can happen in a direct fashion, but the second, third and fourth level effects are the more interesting and potentially most powerful.  By second level effect I mean the power to place an item on the agenda of the nation, as opposed to the (first level) impact of articulating a particular position on an existing policy question.  By third level I mean the ability to frame the way the issue is considered.  And by fourth level I mean the power to configure the very bounds of legitimate discourse.

For example, on the issue of gay marriage, a first level effect of the bully pulpit would be to take a pro position on the issue.  This alone would have a considerable impact, and Obama has the capacity to cut a decade or two off the time it takes to bring this issue to fruition, notwithstanding the fact that the issue is taking off nowadays quite on its own (and quite without the help of the president).

A second level effect, using this same example, would be for him to use his giant soapbox to make the issue a national priority.  Few individuals have that capacity to the degree presidents do, let alone popular ones.  Two sentences in a state of the union address could immediately move the issue to the center of American political discourse.

A third level effect would have to do with the crucial matter of framing the issue.  The question of the question – Is this an issue of preserving tradition versus one of basic human rights and justice? – is crucial to the ultimate matter of the policy’s political prospects.  To use the most oft-quoted example as illustration, if you call it an estate tax, people support it.  Reframe it as a death tax, and support plummets.

Finally, a fourth level effect of the bully pulpit provides for a kind of uber-framing that has the effect of legitimating or delegitimating certain kinds of discourse around an issue.  Conservatives, following the pattern of Jackie Onasis, have semi-succeeded in redefining Ronald Reagan as some sort of demi-god, to the point where in America only political cranks could possibly have an unkind word to say about one of our greatest presidents.  The fact that he was, in reality, actually one of our most destructive shows the power of this effect.  Moving perceptions that far involves legitimating and delegitimating whole lines of thought.  Imagine, for example, if Obama began a process of characterizing opponents of gay rights as people with a similar moral standing as slave holders, both of whom are profoundly about denying fundamental human rights to others.  Were this ethos to take hold, it would instantly delegitimize the opposing position on the issue, making the legislative victories a cakewalk.

Obama cannot do everything, and without question he has an enormous agenda that has been thrust upon him.  With the exceptions of Lincoln and FDR, I doubt any president has been more challenged walking in the door than this one.  Moreover, it would do no good for anybody should he succeed on issues like gay marriage, but fail on the economic rescue or war crises.  Say hello to President Jeb Bush if that happens.

It’s also absolutely the case that presidents have political capital no less limited than is real capital.  What you spend on winning health care you cannot also spend on Iraq.

But, all that said, what if this president were to use the powers of his bully pulpit to reorient public thinking on major issues as dramatically as he began to with respect to life values in his ASU commencement address?

What if Obama profoundly changed the way we think about international relations, international law, international institutions, and America’s place in the world?  So much of what we get wrong in this domain is premised on the original sin of thinking we are somehow morally superior to the rest of the planet, and therefore entitled to special treatment.  So much of what needs to be done in order to reorient our horrid international politics could be unleashed by a new paradigm with respect to America’s place in the world, and the ensuring rights and privileges we assume should follow from there.  A president could take us very far down these paths with thoughtful rhetoric alone.

If he was able to do this, he could also begin to talk sensibly about military spending, as well, particularly given the profound truth – merely waiting to be uttered again by a high level American official, fully fifty years after Eisenhower originally did it – that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed”.

Of course, the military-industrial complex Ike warned against only got massively bigger and infinitely more clever at stealing from the hungry and the cold over the following half-century.  Yet the power to correct this tragedy of greed – there is no other term for it – is magnified in the presidential bully pulpit.  Obama may not be willing to spend the political capital to do so.  Or – more unfortunate yet – he may not believe in the cause.  But were he to take on the role of educator-in-chief on this issue, so much could be accomplished.  It is not 1960 anymore, the Cold War is over, and young people in particular seem especially open to new paradigms at this moment.

Another major theme concerns the equitable distribution of wealth inside the country.  The right has been incredibly successful at fomenting the Ayn Randian construction which worships selfishness in such great glory that it is enshrined in public policy.  the result has been an incredible transfer of money over the last three decades, the decimation of the middle class, and a polarization of wealth that has put us now on par with any well-functioning banana republic one might care to choose.  Obama seems completely disinclined toward moving the country on this issue, even away from the worst extremes of Reaganism-Bushism, but imagine what could be accomplished if he starter chastising the malefactors of wealth for their greed?  Actually, we don’t have to imagine.  It’s been done before, and we already know the salutary effects.

Campaign finance and electoral process is another domain that could produce enormous bang for every buck of political capital spent.  By framing the issue as one of invigorating American democracy, Obama could generate enormous pressure leading to reforms it would be ludicrous to resist, generating wholesale enfranchisement of huge swathes of Americans today effectively blocked from voting.  This could change forever the politics of this country.

Similarly, so much of where we go wrong in America is rooted in our system of campaign finance.  As that screaming radical of the looney left, John McCain, once said, “America gets the best Congress money can buy”.  Lots of Americans get enraged about taxes and pork barrel spending, but in doing so they (conveniently) miss the big picture.  The problem is way deeper and way more fundamental.  If a president were ever to lead on this, we could perhaps break the stranglehold that special interests have, not just on spending, but on policy.  Almost every issue domain in American politics would turn out radically different if special interest’s interests were divorced from policy-making.

There are countless examples of what Obama could do with his bully pulpit but, above all, he must use it to completely reorient thinking (or what has passed for it) in this country on the global warming issue.  This one never ceases to amaze me.  Even the deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic metaphor fails to do justice to the sheer stupidity of American policy on this issue.  As climatologists are now discovering that even their gloomy projections of massively destructive warming were insufficiently dire, my jaw sometimes drops so hard it dents the pavement in the realization that this society continues to allow short-term profits for extremely narrow special interests to continue their campaign of disinformation on the issue.  Or that such-and-such a person’s job – or even a million jobs – stand in our way (falsely, at that) of saving the planet from total destruction.  Do the oil and coal barons have some other celestial body their children will be able to inhabit, of which I’m unaware?  Have they colonized Mars in preparation for the offspring of Shell and Exxon/Mobil CEOs to migrate there?  Are there really human beings so impossibly sociopathic that they would trade entire species for a couple of extra decades with a second or third yacht?  Yes, of course, there are.  And the crisis therefore screams out for presidential leadership on the matter.  Would it be so much for the president to say that these “What, me worry?” lies are, in fact, lies?

Barack Obama remains something of an unknown quantity to the world, even after two years of campaigning and a hundred days of governing.  Both progressives and regressives alike have reasons for satisfaction and disappointment with the guy.  Some in the former category still hold out hope that Obama is a practitioner of three-dimensional chess, that he’s smarter and more patient than the rest of us, and that he will implement progressive policy solutions soon enough, but cleverly, strategically, and deliberately.  This may not necessarily (or, alas, may) be an entirely fantastical exercise in wishful thinking.  Sounding reasonable and centrist while Cheney and Limbaugh push the GOP further toward the edge of the cliff with their insane histrionics, for example, is not necessarily a bad way to eventually move even dumbed-down America in the direction of a thoughtful politics.

Whether Obama ultimately turns out to be the clever progressive in centrist’s clothing, or the plain old centrist (and sometimes out-and-out conservative) in centrist’s clothing is yet to be determined.

What is clear, however, is that among any president’s greatest powers is the force of words, and that few presidents have ever had the rhetorical magic this one possesses.

If he uses this power thoughtfully and courageously, he might in so doing produce more positive impact on the direction of this country than would any bill rammed through Congress, or any redeployment of troops.

Getting Americans to think differently about themselves and their politics is the key that unlocks every door.

Obama carries those keys in his pocket.

DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.


DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.  More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.