The Limits of the Bully Pulpit

Obama follows in Nixon's footsteps.


In the summer of 1971, the nation was in the doldrums. Inflation was rising, and unemployment was uncomfortably high. The stock market was sinking. Polls indicated President Richard Nixon could lose his 1972 re-election bid.

He decided major changes were in order. On the evening of Aug. 15, 1971, Nixon went on TV to announce new economic policies—the most drastic being a freeze on all wages, prices, and rents. He assured his worried audience, "Our best days lie ahead."

The speech was a triumph. The stock market soared. Newspaper editorials hailed his courage. One poll found that 75 percent of Americans supported the plan. "In all the years I've been doing this," said the pollster, "I've never seen anything this unanimous." Nixon's economic strategy was a stroke of political genius.

In practice, however, it was a disaster. A powerful new bureaucracy arose. The dollar collapsed. Inflation persisted. Shortages of vital commodities emerged. In the end, Nixon had to abandon his program, but not until plenty of damage had been done.

Barack Obama's Thursday address to Congress was his attempt to seize the moment as Nixon did. But instead of something new and outwardly promising, all he had to offer was a variation on things that have already been tried, to little apparent effect.

His real problem, though, is the same one that Nixon eventually came to understand: the painful limits of his capacity. Obama does not have the power to create jobs, any more than Nixon had the power to curtail inflation. The central theme of his speech—that millions of Americans would go back to work if only Congress will approve his plan—rings false.

Nor is it likely that his aggressive, can-do tone will imbue consumers with the bounding confidence needed to invigorate the flagging economy. Unlike Nixon, who went on TV in the days of three channels, Obama couldn't count on reaching the vast majority of Americans.

Nor could he expect the full attention of those who did pay attention: In the age of Twitter and Facebook, the sniping began as soon as he did. The golden age of the bully pulpit is long past.

Presidential sermons on the economy rarely meet their goals. Gerald Ford's 1974 "Whip Inflation Now" speech called on Americans to unite against this menace, but it ended up being the butt of jokes. Jimmy Carter exhorted us to treat the energy crisis as the "moral equivalent of war." He was ridiculed for wearing a cardigan sweater.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are remembered not for their speeches about the economy but for its stellar performance during their time in office. Nixon may have shown that words can change moods for a while. But they can't alter real-world outcomes.

Obama now proposes to lay out $140 billion for infrastructure investments to "put people to work rebuilding America." But his 2009 stimulus package included $100 billion for investment in highways, bridges, and other public works. The funds were supposed to be poured into "shovel-ready projects" to get the unemployed back to work in a hurry.

Not quite. Economists John Cogan and John Taylor of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University found that by the end of 2010, the federal government had spent only $5.6 billion on infrastructure. If the first attempt to shower money on this sector didn't work, what makes the president think a second one would fare better?

The payroll tax cut he wants to extend and expand is another exercise in irrelevance. It's supposed to spur spending by putting more money in paychecks and spur hiring by giving employers a tax break.

But most Americans didn't spend the cash they got from his 2009 tax cut: They used it to increase savings or reduce debts, neither of which boosts demand for goods and services. And without that demand for what they produce, businesses will not hire people to produce it.

The bleak fact is that when an economy suffers a financial crisis like the one that erupted in 2008, the ensuing recovery is typically slow, weak and demoralizing. It takes years to work through the bad debts incurred in the boom years, and there is no easy way to speed that process up.

In Nixon's time, Americans could believe that a speech and a program would banish economic woe. By now, we should know better.


NEXT: Backpedaling

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Jimmy Carter exhorted us to treat the energy crisis as the “moral equivalent of war.” He was ridiculed for wearing a cardigan sweater.

    Lucky he didn’t get curb stomped for that.

    1. He succeeded. We now treat war as the moral equivalent of an energy crisis.

  2. I did my best.

  3. I haven’t seen any poll numbers, did anyone buy this crap? Other than the “tingly leg” crowd that is.

    1. The night of the speech, the knee-jerk reaction from the talking heads I saw was how great a speech it was, how this was the Obama of 2008, how dynamic blah blah blah. But once the analysts started talking about the content of the proposals, it was pretty much panned. “Maybe helping a little on the margins” was the best positive they could put on it.

      All that doesn’t mean the pricks in Congress won’t pass this money grab, once it’s written.

      1. oh, I’m sure the ‘pub Congress will grow a spine and stand athwart, yelling STOP!

        *laughs himself sick*

    2. HEY! I did not say “Tingle” I did not say it. I said “Thrill”! You right wing extremists made up your own story.


      1. take your pants to the dry cleaners

    3. No, his poll numbers haven’t moved an inch. Not surprisingly, the country has tuned Obama out.

    4. “…the “tingly leg” crowd…”
      Was enough to get that stupid fuck elected. And you can bet the next President will be worthless as well.
      When everyone can vote, everyone loses.

      1. Universal Suffrage and the Progressive Movement are temporally correlated.

        Usual Causation Correlation statements apply.

  4. You mean speeches and good intentions don’t magically cause things to happen?

    1. Only if you believe in Unicorns with rainbows commin’ out their ass!

  5. Tomorrow’s special election results in New York City for the NY-9 seat will be a good indicator of the Democrat’s future in 2012.….._ny-9.html

    1. I guess they couldn’t come up with a lefty to pose as a fake Tea Party candidate in this one. That kind of dirty trick tends to only work one time.

      1. You mean like how Nixon infiltrated the “hippies” in Chicago and elsewhere? Like how he had people go in and commit acts of violence in order to sway public opinion from ‘those blankety-blank peace-loving hippies’ that wanted to put an end to the Vietnam War?

    2. Gee, I wonder if a liberal will win in New York City.

  6. Hmmmm watch whate they do more.

  7. This empty suit in the WH is beginning to make James Earl Carter look good by comparison. I listened the first few moments. It was a campaign speech. Utter dreck to boot. He regurgitated the tripe he has been pushing since he took office, ‘we must sacrifice’ and ‘millionaires and billionaires must pay their fair share’.

    How the fuck does one define fair? And why is it everyone other than union thugs and those on welfare keep getting sacrificed? This is old fashioned Tammany Hall politics. Simply corrupt and stupid.

    1. “Fair share” means the rich don’t pay enough evidenced by their being rich.
      If they paid their “fair share” then they wouldn’t be rich.
      We will know that the rich have paid their “fair share” when they aren’t rich anymore.

      1. So now the parasite class wants everything that the productive class is creating. That makes sense. Soon the host will either die or turn on the parasite. That will be an ‘interesting’ experience.

        1. Out of curiosity, who will actually perform any labor once the “host” turns on the “parasites?” Get back on your Jazzy and scoot away, teabagger.

          1. Who the fuck put you in charge asshole? For a genius you don’t even get the reference to some objectivist rhetoric.

            Tea-bagger? So. Did you have to actually stop sucking Obama’s dick to type this? Or do you prefer Biden because you are a racist? Pelosi? Ooops. Should not have written that the image makes me …


            1. For your information, I was sucking Pelosi’s dick because I’m racist. And into ladyboys.

        2. It’s not fair that some people are allowed to accumulate wealth while others have none.

          Not fair!
          *stomp stomp stomp*
          Not fair! Not fair not fair not fair!

          How many people could be helped if that greedy rich person was relieved of their possessions and the loot was divvied out to the poor?

          How fair is it that that greedy rich person lives in luxury while others live in squalor?

          Not fair not fair not fair!

          The problem is that theft by individuals is criminal.
          When an individual steals, the victim seeks justice from the government.

          But if you get the government to steal on your behalf, where can the victim go for justice?


          Fairness comes at the expense of justice.

          1. Stop making sense sarcasmic otherwise OG might call you a moron or a teabagger. That really worries me. Really. No. Really really really.

            I have come to view the word ‘fair’ in the same light I view the words ‘people’, ‘sacrifice’ and the phrases ‘social justice’ or ‘struggle against capitalism’.

            You got a statist thug looking to control all the fruits of your labor.

          2. Only the wealthy can afford justice.

      2. What I have found out is that some people believe fair share is “Take all monies exceeding $350,000”. That was in my local paper and apparently it’s based on something FDR proposed. Of course if I can’t keep anything above that why would I do anything in America again.

    2. “How the fuck does one define fair?”

      Interesting nugget:

      The word “fair” is capitalist. In the middle ages, they used to call open markets “fairs”. So you’d go to the fair to buy all your stuff. Of course, at the fair, there was a lot of competition, which drove prices toward equilibrium. So the “fair price” is the price set by a competitive market.

      1. Are you sure it isn’t just a matter of the word “fair” having more than one meaning, like “too” or “can” or “pick” or “own” or ………..

    3. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

      Wonder if Marx defined need the same way our benevolent government does?

    4. You know, I am truly amazed at the language and outright smallness of minds on this site. On the liberal sites, bad language and outright attacking other people is not allowed. I guess on these conservative sites “anything goes”, huh? Kinda goes to show the difference of mentality between liberals and conservatives…. When did conservatives abandon common decency and civility? Just wondering…..

      1. Are minds are plenty big, but as I’m sure you already know, we are paid to be here, and with all the damage we’ve caused the economy, every penny counts.

        So do yourself a favor and go back to Huffpo. They’ll ban all the mean people, and your posts we’ll be appreciated. FANNED AND FAVED!!!11!!

        1. Probably should read “Our minds are…”

      2. I read DU and Kos regularly, so don’t feed me some horseshit about how civil the discourse is.

      3. It’s also not a conservative site, it’s a libertarian site. It’s real rich though, a TEAM BLUE shill like yourself calling people uncivil.

        1. Or is it incivil. I don’t know.

      4. You know, I am truly amazed at the language and outright smallness of minds on this site. On the liberal sites, bad language and outright attacking other people is not allowed. I guess on these conservative sites “anything goes”, huh? Kinda goes to show the difference of mentality between liberals and conservatives…. When did conservatives abandon common decency and civility? Just wondering…..

        Concern troll is concerned.

  8. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm. Let’s watch wat they do.

  9. Yesterday a family lunch, a hardcore blue-team rah-rah girl spent 15 minutes heaping effusive praise on Bill Clinton’s 9/11 speech in Shanksville, then went on and on about how wonderful he was, how she’d vote for him again, ad nauseum. The funny part was she didn’t mention the big “historical” speech from Obama last week. It looks like even the blue-team storm troopers are building a emotional and intellectual justification to throw poor Barry under the bus. They won’t criticize him yet – they’ll just forget him for now.

    1. Was she wearing a blue dress???

    2. Something tells me that Clinton has become team blue’s “Reagan”.

      1. I miss him too!

  10. The problem is not just the fact that a nations leaders cannot by decree improve the economy. The problem is that people think that a president/prime minister/chancellor should be in charge of the economy in the first place.

    1. Don’t you watch the news? Obama deliberately CREATED the shit economy because he’s a socialist. Moron.

      1. “…..because he’s a socialist moron.”
        There fixed it for you….no charge!

      2. I do not know what news you are watching, but I know that watching from more than one mainstream media outlet that many people seriously believe that the president is in charge of the economy.

        No president wants to purposefully harm the economy you stupid idiot, whether they are socialist or not, they only care about votes, which will not be helped by a bad economy. There are no conspiracies, its simply misguided ideas that do not work in the real world.

        1. Thanks for clarifying. It troubles me that sarcasm is indistinguishable from rhetoric these days.

          1. No, the problem is that stupid people like you lack even the minimum levels of reading comprehension skills, but are still able to vote.

            1. If you don’t contribute to the system you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
              That means if you’re on welfare, food stamps, ssi, a government employee, a government contractor, or in some other way take more from the government than you put in – no vote for you.
              Not like that’s ever going to happen, but it would be nice.

              1. I agree with you, but being against universal suffrage is like endorsing the cooking of babies for many.

                The way I see it, children are not allowed to vote, if grown ups want to be treated like children and do not pay any tax, then like children they should not be allowed to vote.

              2. This is good^^^^^^

            2. Wow, an ad hominem attack AND non-sequitur argument in the same sentence. Keep going, it’ll save you from having to make an actual point.

              1. I suppose when you call somebody a moron first, like you did, does not count though.

                The fact that you completely misread something then call somebody a moron for it, really does mean you are the stupid one here.

                1. Let’s break down my comment together!

                  “Don’t you watch the news?” – The MSM is shit, a point largely agreed upon ’round these parts.

                  “Obama deliberately CREATED…” – No he didn’t. He couldn’t have. Period.

                  As for the moron bit, it was completely disingenuous.


                  My attempt at poking fun at baseless “logic” has provoked a torrent of it.

                  I don’t think NotSure is a moron, I promise. In fact, they’re probably a rather decent person, well-liked by their friends and family, and a reasonably productive member of society. I’ve seen other posts of theirs around here, and while I don’t agree with all of them, I understand and respect their position.

                  So now a (mistaken) perception of insult has led you to unleash a flood of them to a complete stranger. Well done. “Reason” indeed.

                  1. OG,
                    two words: EPIC FAIL or nice try or play again.

                    1. My feelings are hurt.

      3. It’s obvious you’re no genius. Obama is definitely NOT a socialist. And I should know….

        1. OK, so he’s an overexposed lefty incompetent.

          1. Naahh, he’s a sack of shit with big ears.

  11. As Dear Leader has just demonstrated, the greatest limitation of the bully pulpit is brought out by its overuse.

    1. I get it! “Dear Leader,” just like the Jonger! Such an apt comparison! Really, who can even tell the difference between the US and the DPRK anyway, considering every single problem we have started the moment Barry took office!

      1. “Such an apt comparison!” Not really….the Jonger is much more intelligent!

        1. What we need here is more hyperbolic rhetoric. Why hasn’t anyone brought up Hitler yet, anyway?

          1. I think attacks on references to Hitler have actually become more worn out than references to Hitler.

            Kinda like when the police become worse than the criminals.

          2. “What we need here is more hyperbolic rhetoric.”
            No, you need […] and ALL CAPS.

      2. I agree, there are differences between the USA and North Korea, but the cult of personality that both countries have for their leader is not one of them.

        1. Please tell me you’re kidding. I was stationed in the Republic of Korea for better than two years. Drawing such a bullshit analogy with any sincerity at all is just trumpeting your ignorance.

          I’m all for your freedom of speech, even when it’s stupidity with no basis in reality.

          1. So those Maoesque election portraits of your hero did not really exist.

            1. “My hero” has had shockingly few citizens summarily executed. Your argument was bullshit, and you’ve been called on it. When the papers state that the president doesn’t defecate and routinely sinks 3 or 4 holes-in-one per round of golf, sure. Then your comparison would be accurate. As of now, it isn’t.

              Lay off the personal attacks and come up with something of substance.

              And for the record, I voted against Barry and think he’s a hypocrite.

              1. I wasn’t aware that “cult of personality” included executing people.

                I thought “cult of personality” referred to the use of mass media to create an idealized image of one’s self, and the average rube laps it up.

                In that respect I would say the comparison is apt.

              2. You haven’t said anything of substance in this thread. All you do is say “lets lay down our arms…you go first.”

              3. A cult of personality has nothing to do with how many people are executed, it has to do with how a politician is portrayed and viewed.

                The fact that you jumped to the defense of your hero, when I was making an observation about politicians in general, does actually mean you are suffering from the very personality cult you pretend does not exist.

          2. Stationed in South Korea! For two years! Wow. Who here is worthy to comment on North Korea in the presence of such erudite authority?

            1. I do pity you OG.
              It must be tough not having sex since you last paid for it in Korea.
              Very tough indeed.

              1. Fuck off. I have sex every time my sister visits.

            2. Say whatever you like about the dude on the internet, your comparison is still inappropriate and foolish.

            3. Don’t you know, South Korea is place where all the Kim Il Jong propaganda is displayed, because there really is no real difference between North and South Korea.

              1. You actually can hear some of it on the radio from time to time. It’s crazy shit, too. I also got to meet some folks who help refugees escape. It’s a very real part of life over there, especially among the old folks. The younger generations feel much different about things, a lot like American kids born late enough to not have lived under the shadow of the Cold War.

  12. In other news, those that would be otherwise capable of initiating change by ripping all of the talking heads from their podiums and dragging them into the streets instead elected to impotently bitch in comment threads, all the while operating under the illusion that they owe these fucks anything whatsoever.

    Film at 11.

    1. So. you must b Toni’s Union Thug brother. To wit:
      “those that would be otherwise capable of initiating _c_h_a_n_g_e_ by ripping all of the talking heads from their podiums”
      I guess Obama is turning out to be a disappointment hey? Trumka for POTUS?

      1. Who isn’t disappointed in Obama? And as for desiring change, I certainly won’t advocate inertia and stagnation!

        1. We have a winner!! Toni! You got family here now. He is even dumber than you are.

          1. What the hell…I have been spelling my name wrong.

        2. “Who isn’t disappointed in Obama?”
          Not me, he has lived up to all my expectations.

          1. Unfortunately Obumbles has surpassed mine. Incompetent? Absolutely. Suicidally Ideological — that is the new one. Figured he would tack right like Clinton did after his shellacking in 94.

            Not Obama. 65 new Rethuglians in the house? How revolting!! Damn the citizens! Full speed ahead!! *howard Dean scream here*

            And the lemmings in his party are still in a lock step –right over the cliff. Who will foil the devious and cunning plans of team red after team blue has finished destroying itself?

            1. Definitely surpassed my low expectations. We still have the PATRIOT ACT, we are at war with Libya without congressional approval, and the president claims the right to assassinate american citizen. I knew the lefty progressive stuff would be bad but I sorta thought most of the excesses of the right would be reined in.

  13. Hitler’s Teabagging Union Thugs Are Parasites. There, I said it all, so the rest of you can stop. You’re welcome. Now on to more important things:
    Authentic knock-off handbags and shoes for CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP! Fake Gucci, Fake Coach, Fake Prada, Fake Blahnik! You want it we got it! Go to

  14. Godwin’s Law needs updating for a new century, so here goes:
    Hitler handbags and scarfs! Extra cheap! Plenty good deals all teh time. Go to w-w.hitlerhandbagsandscarfs. c0m.

  15. I disagree. First of all, I think Obama is trying to follow in FDR’s footsteps, not Nixon’s. FDR had some good ideas and programs to put this country back to work and boost the economy – until Republicans axed it. The problems we’re having with the economy, IMHO, are directly attributable to the fabricated fairy tale of “trickle down” economics, ala Ronnie Reagan. We should have learned our lesson from that failed, disastrous economic “plan”, too, but apparently we either haven’t learned our lesson or the powers-that-be are content to blissfully ignore it as long as they’re still making money. Our economic troubles rest at the feet of the selfish and the greedy, period. America’s millionaires and billionaires have loads of money. They’re not hurting, they’re benefiting! Never has the ability to buy jewels, furs, high-priced homes (inc. vacation homes), expensive cars, etc., been so robust for the 2% of people in this country that can afford it. Roughly 400 people in this country have managed to manipulate congress and the economy to benefit them! Everything else is just smoke and mirrors. I generally don’t like much of Obama’s policies – I find him much too timid and much too centrist. I think he’s afraid of stepping on the robber barons’ toes, so to speak. But I do applaud his attempt to take a history lesson from FDR and put this country – and ALL its people – ahead of those who are less patriotic and much more concerned about their own selfish greed. Now, will the uber-rich listen? Frankly, I doubt it. I think they’re quite willing to sell our country to the highest bidder…much like they’ve sold their own souls to the devil, so to speak.

    1. And Obama will fix all this by, what? Continuing the War on Terror, War on Drugs, War on Civil Liberties, War on Energy, War on Jobs? It’s all about consolidating power over the masses.

      If you think he’s interested in helping the little guy, you’ve been conned. He’s in bed with the same people you hate.

    2. Hahaha… Funny how that fairy tale lead to such a rapid and large improvement in standard of living for nearly everyone.

    3. FDR had some good ideas and programs to put this country back to work and boost the economy – until Republicans axed it.

      FDR’s Congressional Majorities:
      73: S – D, 63%, R – D, 72.4%
      74: S – D, 76%, R – D, 74%
      75: S – D, 79%, R – D, 77%
      76: S – D, 72%, R – D, 58%
      77: S – D, 69%, R – D, 61%
      78: S – D, 60%, R – D, 51%

      When, pray tell, could the Republicans have done any blocking during this time? If you’re going to play the party affiliation game, everything during the depression was incumbent upon the Democratic party.

    4. You do know that rich, greedy people create jobs… right?

      1. I thought that was just a rumor.

    5. America’s millionaires and billionaires have loads of money.


    6. The problems we’re having with the economy, IMHO, are directly attributable to the fabricated fairy tale of “trickle down” economics, ala Ronnie Reagan.

      So Obama, doing the opposite of Reagan, should be re-elected in a landslide. If not, you’re wrong.

  16. “Obama follows in Nixon’s footsteps.”
    Let’s hope so…Nixon resigned.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.