Obama Risks Overusing the Bully Pulpit on Stimulus Package

Obama is a powerful communicator, but speeches aren't always the answer.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Obama has started to use tougher language to push his stimulus package. Good. He tried playing nice and it got him nowhere, so it's time to put down the carrot and start using the stick. But his whole stimulus-pitching performance not only underscores his belief in the power of words but raises questions about whether he understands their limitations.

Even our most eloquent presidents understood (or in the case of Bill Clinton, learned) the power of presidential speech dissipates the more it is used. "People forget this when they expect me to go on the air all the time educating the nation," JFK once told aide Arthur Schlesinger (my father). "The nation will listen only if it is a moment of great urgency."

The nation does face a moment of great urgency, but we're two-and-a-half-weeks into Obama's term. The president can only talk directly to the American people so often. This may well be the moment for the president to use the bully pulpit; but doing so risks diminishes his power for the remaining three years and 50 weeks in office. (He also laudably admitted to screwing up, but that too is a card he can only play a limited number of times. Maybe he should have saved it for a bigger error?)

As today's Washington Post notes:

Most presidents guard their personal time—and capital—carefully, spending it only when dispatching an aide or emissary won't get the job done.

But aides said Obama has largely rejected that approach when it comes to economic recovery, preferring instead to run his administration much as he campaigned for the presidency. "He believes very strongly that he needs to talk to the American people through as many mediums as possible—using the bully pulpit of the presidency, using the media, using the Internet—about why we need to do this package," one senior aide said. The adviser said Obama believes in his own ability to affect the course of events by broadening the debate beyond Washington.

Obama is a powerful communicator, but he runs the risk that by over-estimating his own effectiveness, he'll diminish it.

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