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A bully pulpit master class

Date

Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

No more Mr Nice Guy: Barack Obama uses words to define his purpose and his chosen path, and to define and fight his enemies. Julia Gillard is much more - much too - cautious.

No more Mr Nice Guy: Barack Obama uses words to define his purpose and his chosen path, and to define and fight his enemies. Julia Gillard is much more - much too - cautious. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Barack Obama, sworn in on Tuesday for his second term, devoted a good deal of his inaugural address to reminding Republicans that he, not they, and progressive forces, not conservative ones, had won the November election.

He did not quite say it like that, of course. In America as much as Australia, successful politicians use phrases they scarcely mean about governing on behalf of all of the people, not merely their party. But the content of his speech was very much focused on the idea that the election had involved a choice by Americans, and that his side had won. Americans had voted for a Democrat vision of activist government, not an ever-diminishing view of limited government. For a busy collectivist vision which embraces its poor and dispossessed rather than dismissing them as ''takers''.

It was, of course, a set-piece rhetorical exercise, as inauguration speeches, including the most famous (such as John Kennedy's or Abraham Lincoln's) always are. Yet like a Queen's speech from the throne, or one delivered by her viceroy, such speeches are always interesting not only in describing an orator's view of the world, and vague intentions about practical things he means to do during his term, but some sense of the indicators against which he expects to be judged by history.

In this sense, Obama's was a brave speech in several respects. It was a challenge to a congress which neither he nor his party controls, and with which he, and virtually everything he represents is in acrimonious conflict. It was a challenge to other politicians able to insist they have as much mandate as he does. It was also a challenge to a host of populist right-wing movements, including the Tea Party, to militant fundamentalist Christian groups, and perhaps the National Rifle Association (now but the church militant of the Republican Party), all of whom have whipped themselves into a lather about their perception of Obama. Not since Lincoln in 1860 has a popularly elected president been regarded with such hostility by those who did not vote for him. Obama is seen as some sinister alien with a secret agenda to disarm America, leave it naked to its enemies, abolish God and the constitution, and probably to make abortion, homosexuality and the eating of arugula compulsory.

In one sense Obama can now afford to show his true face - even if it lacks the sharp teeth feared by his enemies. He will never face another election, and no longer has to hold back, settling for such incremental improvement he can finagle, having to appease forces he despises. Yet he still has four years of government and a legacy to create - the more so because he had to cope in his second election campaign with a good deal of disappointment, among his original followers, that his first term had not changed much despite his promises. Perhaps there were reasons including deep recession and the obdurate enemies, but his call for a renewed mandate again created hopes and expectations about his capacity to deliver.

Can he do this if he goes into head-on conflict with the legislative and parliamentary branches of American government? Or ought he be conciliatory, perhaps at least for the next two years, in the hope that popular frustration with Republican oppositionism will see a Democrat majority return at the mid-term elections?

In America as much as in Australia there are always reasons for holding back from being bold. Being bold raises expectations that may be difficult to meet, indeed more difficult if you spell them out. Being bold exposes yourself, giving your enemies a clear view of your priorities. Being bold when you are beholden to others for your survival gives them a greater opportunity to blackmail you. But, sometimes, being bold allows you to appeal over the heads of politicians to voters, allows you to define visions instead of details, inspire goodwill instead of frustration. Boldness invests and renews a sense of purpose.

Julia Gillard leads a minority government. Last election Labor lost its majority, and a majority of the people voted Labor out, even if there was not a majority to vote the coalition in. Gillard is prime minister - a legitimate one in every way - because she had superior negotiating and bluffing skills than Tony Abbott. She has shown great skill in retaining the regular support of independents and others with the balance of power. She has had remarkable success in getting her legislative agenda up.

But she has had considerably less success in stamping her authority over her party, her government, her Parliament and the electorate. Whether this is because she is conscious of her limited mandate, and her survival on the sufferance of independents, or because of some crisis of her own confidence is not so clear. But there is a sense in which Labor is always apologising to its constituents about its limited capacity to deliver, given the practicalities of numbers in Parliament.

By contrast, Britain's Conservative Party governs, with the support of the Liberal Party, with arrogance, ease and confidence, not only in spite of generally adverse opinion polls, but clear evidence that the decision by the Liberal Party to throw in its lot with David Cameron was disastrous for its future. Whatever the faults of Cameron, and despite the minority position of the Tories, he has not been agonised, has not been accused of being tentative, or of failing to go the whole hog for fear that he lacks a mandate for it.

Cameron understands very well that his only chance of re-election will come, at a time when a poll is necessary, from a popular perception that the generally unpleasant medicine forced down the economic throat has worked, despite the howls and screams at the time they were being administered. Cameron has preserved (and he has done it far better than British Labour or the Liberal Party) a sharp sense of what the conservative party stands for.

Except in one respect, Gillard has by contrast used her precarious parliamentarian position as an excuse for a want of bold action and a want of bold, or defining, rhetoric. Perhaps this has, in any event, lined up with an instinctive caution in a difficult personal and political environment - one haunted both by her assassination of Kevin Rudd and, perhaps, her recent drubbing at the hands of Bob Carr. The exception with Gillard has been with a carbon tax, though that, at the end of the day, may have been more symbol than destination. Until recently, one might have added persistence with an intention to have a budget surplus.

In certain respects Obama's first term has more closely resembled Gillard than Cameron. He has been a master of an enlarging speech, but they have been short on detail and there has had to be a lot of tooing and froing over his stripped-back Obamacare. A part of this has involved diminishing expectations and trying to have supporters understand the genuinely hostile environment in which he has worked.

His inauguration speech suggests a new strategy of appealing over the heads of congress and institutional resistance, creating and increasing pressure for action with skilful use of what has been called the bully pulpit - his capacity to set debate and define its terms.

Gillard could have such a pulpit, and be actually setting agendas rather than responding to agendas set by others. She has made it into an election year, and though the polls still have her behind she has made up ground. Her opponent's oppositionism and aggression is meeting with resistance; he has a good deal of capacity to transform himself, but Gillard has an equal capacity to be nimble - if only she is bold, and willing not merely to block the Opposition bowling but to start belting some of the looser balls to the fence. It's not, any longer, a matter of seeing off the fast ball, but of building up an innings.

>> Jack Waterford is Editor at large. Jack.waterford@canberratimes.com.au

3 comments so far

  • Gillard has shown a great capacity for back-room negotiating and deal making but has demonstrated an almost inerrant capacity for taking the wrong position on important public policy issues and being wholly unable to sell that poor policy position. She will not go down as one of Australia's great Prime Minister's for that reason alone.

    Commenter
    Lesm
    Location
    Balmain
    Date and time
    January 23, 2013, 1:08PM
    • The problem with Obama is this, he has talked the big game before but nothing has eventuated.

      We all understand how difficult it can be to pass legislation at any given point in time. But if one does so then the populace will see this and, if they agree, will give that person what they need at the next election. So if Obama did look like he would follow through the people of the US will give him the majority of both houses that he needs as he did have at times in the first to years of his presidency. And this was despite a significant gerrymander that was created by the Republicans under GBII.

      The reason Obama lost the House of Reps majority is that the people of the US expected to take decisive action to alleviate the fall out on Main Street of the GFC and Obama failed to do it. Not only are the banks bigger than ever they were loaned money at .25% interest, crap mortgages was taken as collateral, the process set up to review illegal evictions and decide whether compensation was due allowed the banks to appoint the decision maker and then gave the decision maker the actual decision they wanted made. The process was a complex one designed to ensure that few people applied.

      Obama may well, as he no longer faces an election, "cut loose" and seek to implement a more progressive agenda but since he has been re-elected his actions do not give cause for hope. His response to the gun issue is standard, he has not sought to give the ATFE the powers it needs to be an effective law enforcement agency, the ATFE has not had a director for six years

      Commenter
      Anyeta
      Date and time
      January 23, 2013, 1:13PM
      • This is about authenticity and competence.

        Neither Obama nor Cameron has lost sight of what his administration is about, even though his political forces might not always be able to achieve what they'd prefer right away. Neither has resorted to the shallow thought bubbles and juvenile antics that have characterised Gillard Government policy on asylum seekers, live cattle exports and the speakership, for instance.

        In contrast, there is nothing authentic about Gillard (her own "real Julia" observation), starting with the reasons given for the knifing of Kevin Rudd (he'd lost the confidence of many party colleagues over the shambles that Wayne Swan's bungled attempt to ambush the mining industry became, and there was no guarantee of reining him in were he to head off to an early election and emerge victorious), the scripted rush to an immediate election even though proper preparation had not been undertaken (remember the masterstrokes of the East Timor solution, letting the biggest miners write their own taxation write-off rules as long as they stopped their damaging advertising, cash for clunkers and the citizens' assembly, for instance?, and the regular bungling of issues and processes (how many tender-related successes can be pointed to over the past three years?) by people with limited life experience in the real world. Even the droning in search of authority in talking down to the masses is obviously confected.

        With an inherent shallowness of purpose (whatever I can get away with in dealing with today's political crisis) and lack of coherence or competence about policies (increasingly unfunded or aspirational about coming decades, in the disastrous European style), not even the most talented imported spin doctors will be able to lift her unlamented regime from the quicksand of manifest monumental incompetence when judgement day comes.

        Commenter
        Albert Gerber
        Location
        Griffith
        Date and time
        January 23, 2013, 2:39PM

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