In the Arena

Creative Showbiz

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Pete Wehner, the former Bush propagandist now skulking about the Center for Unethical Public Policy (oh, sorry: it’s the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, ironically enough), predicts that after I’d praised Obama for a low-key first week (no showbiz press ops, no soundbite rants about malefactors of great wealth), I would neglect to mention that the President had a soundbite rant about Wall Street bonuses. And he accuses me–in some sort of weird future tense, the hubristic subjunctive perhaps–of being an incipient cheerleader for the Obama Administration. Trouble is, I’d already acknowledged my mistake, if that’s what it was, a day earlier here. It’s also diabetically rich for Wehner to be accusing anyone of being a cheerleader, given his sordid track record as Karl Rove’s chief publicist and hit man.

I wouldn’t mention any of  this if it weren’t for the fact that the original point I made in last week’s column was slightly defective and needs further parsing.  I was reacting to the long-term, consultant-driven tendency to package sweet presidential nothings as significant somethings. As Wehner knows all too well, Bush’s faith-based social programs for the poor turned out to be more about politics than poverty. And every time you saw Bill Clinton in front of a gerundial banner like “Fighting For Working Families” or “Keeping America Safe,” the actual substance of the occasion was “Making Microscopic Promises.”

I sense an Obamian impatience with that sort of thing, which is why we’ve seen so little of it. But there should be room for important presidential pronouncements–like calling out Wall Street on its piggery. In fact, I think Obama is nearing a “teachable moment,” as he would call it: there is a real need for a presidential speech about  disenthralling ourselves from the culture of corporate greed (which includes Mr. Daschle’s lapses). There is also a need for Obama to talk about the need to reform the legislative culture of Washington–including the House Democrats who lavished hundreds of billions on failed, anachronistic institutions like inner city public education, or even needed stopgaps like Medicaid, without including new rules and requirements to make the programs more effective. (As I wrote yesterday, maybe the teachers unions should give up tenure, or be required to add a month to the school year, or both, in order to receive the Title I bounty.)

In any case, I’ll have more to say about the Bully Pulpit aspect of the presidency in my print column this week.