President Obama wields words the way Zorro flashed his sword. But how many times can a president credibly orate his way out of crises which his administration was elected to solve or avoid altogether?
As Frank Rich recently observed in the New York Times, Obama has made a habit of delivering eloquent speeches at moments of intense political crisis. He enters the fray after the situation has hit fever pitch, then attacks with sharp barbs and inspiring prose. Usually, it’s just what the doctor ordered.
But just like antibiotics, political ploys grow ineffective with overuse. Early in his first term, Obama runs the risk that too many speeches may immunize the public against his primary weapon.
The health care speech followed a tumultuous summer of raucous town hall meetings and a frenzied misinformation campaign by the right-wing chattering class bent on killing health care reform at any cost.
The Wall Street address came one day before Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced that the recession that has wracked the nation for 18 months is now technically over.
The president laid out his health care reform agenda to both houses of Congress effectively. The speech itself wasn’t the problem; it was the vacuum of leadership that led up to it.
While the health care debate raged over the summer, the components of a White House plan were curiously absent from the discussion. Obama had his reasons for allowing various committees of the House and Senate to compose their own bills. Clinton administration veterans advising Obama were determined not to repeat Hillary Clinton’s misstep by excluding congressional heavyweights.
But Obama’s months of tepid rhetoric were no match for organized attacks generated by Republicans desperate for an issue, conservative talk show hosts who realized that they had drawn blood, and a well-funded health care lobby fighting for survival.
Obama seems to lack the stomach for confrontation he will need to bring about the change he promised. His primary public activity on health care during a long hot summer was to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and insurers for modest cost savings that pale in the face of windfall profits. Frankly, Obama seems too comfortable with the role of negotiator-in-chief who never has to take a stand in advance.
Should we believe that Obama has no bottom line?
What about the critical issue of reforming our financial system? Obama’s carefully orchestrated speech on Wall Street last week was another barn burner. He laid out a tough program for curbing systemic risk and preventing future meltdowns while a virtual rogues gallery of financial industry titans shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The presidential scolding elicited only tepid applause, belying Wall Street’s lack of enthusiasm for reform.
The most economically terrifying year since the Depression has largely been squandered.
Franklin Roosevelt passed the Emergency Banking Act on his second day in office and the Glass-Steagall Act (which established the FDIC and restored sanity and regulation to the financial system) less than four months into his first term. During nine months in office, Obama has done almost nothing to overhaul the sick system that plunged us into an economic nightmare. The same regulatory structure that allowed last year’s massive failures remains in place more than a year after our financial system teetered on collapse.
The moment for reform may well have been lost. As the economic crisis continues to dissipate, factions in Congress are bickering over which special interest to protect rather than how to protect the public interest. Their attention is now divided among the vitriolic health care debate, increasing violence in Afghanistan, mounting job losses and their own mid-term elections on the horizon.
Obama seems to have forgotten Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick.”
Has he not learned that conflict often makes peace possible? A leader must broaden the bounds of the possible by aggressively educating people and forcefully defending strong positions.
Zorro, Batman, Spiderman and Superman can pull off the eleventh-hour rescue. But a president needs to engage from day one.