Bob Franken

King Features Column

(As usual, the arrangement with the sydicators means this column appears here a week after its newspaper release)


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Does anybody remotely care that it was Teddy Roosevelt who came up with the term “bully pulpit”? Well, he did, to describe the uniquely prominent platform available to a very powerful officeholder, like, say, a president. President Barack Obama is trying to shout from his these days, but he might want to remember that a bully pulpit works only if the user is willing to be a bully.

And that’s been his problem. He’s advocated a “balanced approach” while dealing with adversaries who will accept only the unbalanced. The latest New York Times-CBS News poll, taken in mid-September, shows his disapproval rating now at 50 percent, his lowest as POTUS.

A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind won’t help. It’s called “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President” and depicts a chief executive who can’t control his very top level subordinates. It reinforces a toxic notion that Obama is a weak leader. That, in turn, has fed the idea that he’s vulnerable and can be defeated in next year’s election.

Apparently, his team worries this self-fulfilling perception can become reality. So his chief strategist, David Axelrod, has sent a memo to news reporters and organizations complaining we have “focused on the president’s disapproval ratings as if they existed in a black box,” disregarding that “Americans are increasingly rejecting the tea party” and that the GOP’s candidates for the White House “are busy courting the tea party.”

Look at them: There’s Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who scares many to death with his views on everything from Social Security to shooting coyotes. Then we have Minnesota Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, whose ideas are also way out there and whose incessant sound bites too often are careless when they’re not downright dishonest. Let’s not overlook Mitt Romney, whose main contribution to the campaign thus far is his declaration that “corporations are people.” And these are the leading contenders so far. Their debates often look like a television unreality show.

Still, polls also demonstrate that many from that incredible collection are given a credible chance.

It’s finally sparked a few signs of life in Mr. Obama. He was flat out playing offense in the Rose Garden when he introduced his $3 trillion-plus deficit-reduction program — about half of which comes from new taxes on the rich. It definitely was an offense to the Republicans, who predictably started crying “class warfare” even before it was officially unveiled. “This is not class warfare,” the president gleefully responded. “It’s math. The money is going to have to come from someplace.”

This was after he’d taken the aforementioned bully pulpit on the road to sell his legislation to jump-start employment in this country, with a more than 9 percent jobless rate that is not only shameful but a threat to a second term. The $447 billion needed to pay for his jobs bill would be financed by a combination of increases on the taxes paid by the wealthy, and decreases in massive corporate subsidies.

So, no one should be surprised that House Speaker John Boehner calls this a “poor substitute” for effective action. In truth, Obama should have been rolling Boehner and his stalwarts long before now, because, speaking of polls, Congress routinely ranks in disapproval way down at the “contempt” levels, particularly the Republicans.

Obama will need to take advantage of his advantage. His side needs to whip up his passive supporters to match the intensity of that frenzied band of tea-party reformers who came to Washington hellbent on blowing up nearly everything. As our buddy Teddy Roosevelt also said: “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.” The question, in this case, is whether it’s just a fringe; the bigger question is whether Barack Obama will continue to change his timid ways or succumb to the craziness.

© 2011 Bob Franken

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