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Using the Bully Pulpit

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President Obama’s biggest shortcoming as president has been his failure to use the bully pulpit — the national stage any president has to influence public opinion.

Theodore Roosevelt coined the term early in his administration when describing an upcoming message to Congress: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit.” (Note: Bully at the time was vernacular for “first-rate,” akin to today’s “awesome.”)

Obama is much more reserved than TR, who genuinely enjoyed being president and thought everything was “bully.” “I’ve had a bully time and a bully fight,” he declared upon returning from Cuba at the end of the Spanish-American War.

That’s not the current president’s style. Still, Obama has a golden opportunity to use this evening’s State of the Union speech as a platform for drawing attention to the most pressing problem of our time: Rising economic inequality.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Americans believe the gap between rich and poor has increased markedly in the last decade. That view cuts across party lines, with 68 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans agreeing.

Party differences appear when responders are asked what the government ought to do about inequality. Nine out of ten Democrats say the government should do “a lot” or “some” to reduce the gap (with 62 percent responding a lot). Only 45 percent of Republicans call for government action to attack inequality (only 23 percent say it should do a lot).

The president is expected to urge action on raising the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment benefits in his speech. Helpful as those measures would be, he should do more in redirecting the national conversation toward addressing economic inequality and declining social mobility.

The Pew poll demonstrates that there is wide agreement that inequality is a problem, but disagreement about remedies. That’s where Obama should use his bully pulpit. He should explain that only government has the resources to solve major social and economic problems; he should note that the Progressive Era and the New Deal were periods of reform in which the power of government was used to close the gap between rich and poor; and he should issue a clarion call for action.

It won’t be easy. Congress, under the control of ultra-conservative Republicans won’t act on anything the president presents, and while the public may understand intuitively that inequality is the defining issue of our time, there is a reluctance to take drastic action.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton and currently on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, recently elucidated the reasons for that reluctance. First, says Reich, the working class fears any radical action will threaten the poor jobs and low wages to which it clings, and there are no longer viable labor unions which for decades were the vehicle for collective action. Second, students, who once were a force for social change, are now so burdened with debt and so terrified of facing a lousy job market upon graduation they don’t dare challenge the existing status quo. And third, the American public has become cynical about government and its ability to enact meaningful reform.

So we have a classic dichotomy. Polls shows that while Americans believe only government can undertake major social change, Americans also are skeptical of government’s ability to act.

President Obama should use tonight’s speech to address that dichotomy, to show that while Americans respect local and community rights, that national problems require national solutions. He should use the bully pulpit only he has to make the case for action.

It may not happen on his watch. But he can and should set the agenda for future action.

It’s not preaching; it’s his legacy.

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