No Bully In The Pulpit: After Gun Control Failure, Maureen Dowd Says Obama ‘Still Has Not Learned How To Govern’

For all the confused debate over the meaning of the climate bill’s failure, the most salient lesson for climate hawks is that Obama is not “the one.”

Obama isn’t the Winston Churchill that this nation — and indeed all of humanity — so desperately need if we are to avoid a catastrophic 7°F warming, let alone the unimaginable 11°F warming we are currently headed toward.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd makes that key point about the gun control failure in her tough Sunday piece, “No Bully in the Pulpit“:

President Obama has watched the blood-dimmed tide drowning the ceremony of innocence, as Yeats wrote, and he has learned how to emotionally connect with Americans in searing moments, as he did from the White House late Friday night after the second bombing suspect was apprehended in Boston.

Unfortunately, he still has not learned how to govern.

Obama talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk, or, rather, he doesn’t twist the wrist, as Dowd details in her piece:

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.

It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him….

The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in “The American President.” Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling….

Sometimes you must leave the high road and fetch your brass knuckles. Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: “Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Heidi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.”

Obama had to persuade some Republican senators in states that he won in 2012. He should have gone out to Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada and had big rallies to get the public riled up to put pressure on Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller, giving notice that they would pay a price if they spurned him on this….

Couldn’t the president have given his Rose Garden speech about the “shameful” actions in Washington before the vote rather than after?

There were ways to get to 60 votes. The White House just had to scratch it out with a real strategy and a never-let-go attitude.

Obama, of course, didn’t do either the speechmaking or wrist-twisting for the climate bill.

He never kept Democratic Senators in line for the climate bill. He never made clear there was definitely going to be a vote on the bill, as they knew there would be for health care. This allowed moderate Democrats to publicly bad-mouth the bill and say that there was no path to 60 votes, which essentially sent the message to moderate Republicans crucial to the bill’s passage that they would be taking a massive political risk supporting any bill.

He never forced a vote at all in the Senate, never framed the issue for moderate Republicans (and moderate Democrats) as the most important vote of their careers — a historic vote that would determine their legacy for all time. But then apparently Obama has failed to realize climate change will determine his legacy for all time (see “Obama Wins Reelection, Now Must Become A Climate Hawk To Avoid Dust-Bin Of History, Dust Bowl For America“).

Indeed, on climate, Obama never gave one single major national speech on the most important issue of our time. He even muzzled his Cabinet and Administration from talking about climate. Worse, the Obama White House insisted on a communications strategy for everyone involved in pushing the climate bill that rejected any talk about the problem the climate bill was designed to address — see “The Sounds Of Silence: Team Obama Launched The Inane Strategy Of Downplaying Climate Change Back In March 2009.”

Finally, after his reelection, Obama has started making some (relatively brief) national comments on climate. In his State of the Union address, he vowed, “If Congress Won’t Act Soon To Protect Future Generations, I Will.” His decision on the Keystone XL pipeline this summer will make clear whether even that pledge is true.

Dowd’s bottom line:

President Obama thinks he can use emotion to bring pressure on Congress. But that’s not how adults with power respond to things. He chooses not to get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers.

After the Newtown massacre, he and his aides hashed it out and decided he would look cold and unsympathetic if he didn’t push for some new regulations. To thunderous applause at the State of the Union, the president said, “The families of Newtown deserve a vote.” Then, as usual, he took his foot off the gas, lost momentum and confided his pessimism to journalists.

The White House had a defeatist mantra: This is tough. We need to do it. But we’re probably going to lose.

When you go into a fight saying you’re probably going to lose, you’re probably going to lose….

Obama hates selling. He thinks people should just accept the right thing to do. But as Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, noted, senators have their own tough selling job to do back home. “In the end you can really believe in something,” he told The Times’s Jennifer Steinhauer, “but you have to go sell it.”

The president said the Newtown families deserved a vote. But he was setting his sights too low. They deserved a law.

And what do all of our families and indeed all future generations deserve?

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39 Responses to No Bully In The Pulpit: After Gun Control Failure, Maureen Dowd Says Obama ‘Still Has Not Learned How To Govern’

  1. Christi Kuhn says:

    Here’s another great Op-Ed piece on Guns and Climate Change…the “loaded gun” that threatens all of humanity!

  2. Joe,

    While I agree with you about the climate bill, I thought Maureen Dowd’s column was pretty badly off the mark on the gun bill. That one was always going to be a heavy lift, and there’s pretty much nothing Obama can do if Republicans reflexively vote against anything Obama is for. TMP has a good summary here:

    I agree that the climate bill was much closer and that Obama didn’t really fight for it (and probably could have won if he did), but I think the Dowd column about the gun issue is just wrong.


  3. MarkF says:

    It depends on whether or not you think he actually wanted this enough to do something about it. I’m skeptical.

    Aside from the public posturing necessary to protect his carefully nurtured image, Obama is pretty good at getting what he really wants.

    For instance, ask Denis Kucinich.

  4. Mark E says:

    Obama can

    (1) Sign a wide range of executive orders
    (2) Control the implementation of new laws via “signing statements”
    (3) Convene panels of the National Academy of Sciences to engage the public
    (4) Present military and intelligence advisors to the public to talk about national security and climate


    If Obama had the desire to do so, he could set the national agenda to put the threat of global warming amidst the top five issues in the national dialogue.

    But nope.

    He’s letting others chart the course. What do they say of military generals who lose the initiative? ANSWER: They lose the war.

  5. Where I live, there’s a chain of good to great Democrats all the way up the hierarchy. From city mayor to congressman and governor, two senators, and President.

    Problem is, not one of those electeds is framing the ask at a level where even if 100% of it was achieved, it would be close to getting the job done.

    A state environmental leader I was talking with on Friday shared his sense that what most of these officials care about – are focused on – is winning. Not doing what’s needed. Not finding solutions to real problems. Not doing the right thing. Doing what looks like it will win.

    I realized that’s really what our current political system selects for, over time.

  6. M Tucker says:

    Yeah, Obama blew it in 2009. You can go over it all you want but that was then, this is now. NOW Republicans, radical conspiracy theory believing Republicans, control the House. You can twist arms all you like in the Senate but a climate bill, and a gun bill and probably an immigration bill, will go nowhere in the House. The inmates control the asylum. The Americans who elected those Republican radicals are just as nuts as they are.

  7. Zimzone says:

    Anyone that thinks Obama is anything but center-right is fooling themselves.
    That said, Dowd’s commentary was written to sell newspapers. In her own schizo-affective manner, she swings from left to right herself, contingent on her target of the day.
    Climate change will only be affected by YOU talking with YOUR congresscritters.

    Have you done that today?
    How about tomorrow?

  8. BobbyL says:

    Obama didn’t get much help from liberal politicians, even ones who campaigned on global warming. Their websites generally focused on energy issues such as energy independence and green jobs. The major environmental organizations also played down the threat of global warming focusing instead on the low hanging fruit like compact fluorescent light bulbs and of course green jobs. Perhaps Obama is the most to blame but there I think there is a lot of blame to go around.

  9. Chris Winter says:

    I’m no fan of Maureen Dowd’s writing. I’ll agree with her that the president could do more than he has to push these bills. But that still does not trump the reflexive opposition from Republicans in the Senate and especially in the House. The only cure for that is to make it clear that the reflexive opposition will result in a failure to be reelected. And only the public can do that.

  10. Mark E says:

    How did a center-right politician win the WH on the DEMs ticket? Thank the Tea Party, who pulled the entire spectrum to the right.

    So how do we treat Greens? Lynch ’em! Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. The right knows how to control the story. The left should take some lessons.

  11. Mark E says:

    Geez la weez….. why can’t Obama gather up a few climate scientists and hold town meetings at the scene of extereme weather every two weeks? Live TV and Radio. Interest streams.

    Obama could *completely* change the story on Main Street to Climate-Top-Three-Issue before the next election…… he simply chooses not to do that.

  12. Mark E says:

    PS Of course, I meant where extereme weather has happened the last few years, not that it is regularly scheduled for every two weeks.

  13. catman306 says:

    The right wing has had some mighty nasty things to say about Obama. Except for the birth certificate and Obama being a Muslim, I see no reason to disagree.

  14. Toby says:

    I agree about Dowd. She never gave Obama a fair shake anyway, and this is her just using another opportunity to take him down.

    The key is not what happens, it is how you respond. Let us see what happens next.

    About climate, well, Obama has never lived up to 2008.

  15. Mark Haag says:

    President Obama will only respond as far as he is pushed. Are we giving him any indication we are pushing him? if not, what is the purpose of further analysis?

    Don’t blame Obama for not being courageous unless we are in the streets this summer, 1 million strong. Are you in?

  16. Jeff Huggins says:

    President Obama was guilty of most of the inadequacies, style problems, missteps, and (I would suggest) of not even trying hard when it comes to addressing climate change, all BEFORE the months leading up to the recent Presidential election. Yet the Center for American Progress, including Climate Progress (although CP has long been critical of Obama, in writing) effectively supported, encouraged, and enabled his reelection unconditionally, in effect, by dismissing any idea that the movement would do better to place conditions on Obama’s actions and words, in advance of the election, and be willing to not vote for him if those conditions went unmet. The “lesser of two evils” approach to voting enables (and even rewards) the sort of inaction that’s being criticized here, yet most people in the movement seem to subscribe (and still do?) to the lesser-of-two-evils approach, election after election after election. What NEW and DIFFERENT philosophy and strategy, as it relates to which candidates to support, will CAP and CP, and Bill and, and etc. discuss and adopt prior to the midterm elections and then going into the next Presidential election. (Many Dems are saying that “Hilary is the One”, but has she shown any signs that she will be different from Obama on climate; and will the movement be able and willing to make demands of her as a condition for voting for her, or anyone else for that matter?)

    It is easy to critique Obama (and right to, of course), but CAP, CP, and (I would guess) a majority of the folks in the climate movement reelected him unconditionally, in effect, without hardly putting any REAL pressure on him of the type that counts … votes withheld or given. We are defeating ourselves with the “lesser of two evils” approach to voting and by giving our votes away cheaply, without condition, again and again and again. What’s the NEW thinking, Joe and Bill and etc.?

    (Sorry for the critique. But it becomes a bit hard to read how awful thing are going, and how ineffective Obama has been, when ‘WE’ reelected him only several months ago and still seem not to recognize that problem, a persistent one if we just continue it each election cycle without learning anything.)

    Be Well,


  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Very well observed. Of course he’d need to beef up his security. There’s nothing more troubling to the elite than a President with ideas above his station, like poor old JFK.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    One million, ten million- it won’t make a difference. The system is hermetically sealed from the influence of the rabble. If one hundred billionaires saw Obama, then he’d jump. ‘We, the People’ are dispensable. ‘They, the Rulers’ are not.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ‘lesser evil’ scam is a bulwark of the sham democracy con-job. A lesser evil is still evil, and, often enough, it isn’t even ‘lesser’.

  20. psher grant says:

    Yes, Obama has been weak. But let me speak my peace. I’m an evolutionist, and I bow down to no person or historical gods. In 2010, I read 12 books on the Civil War and it scared me. A great percentage still believe that war was just about states rights as the main reason. Slavery to them is secondary, but I will go one step further and say the religious convictions of those on both sides increased the probability of war. One has to have a deep moral conviction to accept slavery, and there is more than enough historical evidence to back this statement. Obama is our first black U.S. President, one should never forget this. I myself have had to adjust my thinking. The opposition has been baiting him since day one, and sooner or later he’s going to have to bite that hook and fight them for all its worth. If he lets this pipeline go through I will drop him but wish him well.

  21. BobbyL says:

    Kindly explain all the environmental regulations that have been passed that the so called “corporate masters” keep complaining about. Are the complaints also a sham to fool everybody? Is the Clear Water Act a sham? Is the Clean Drinking Water Act a sham? Is the Clean Air Act a sham? Are the regulations to limit mercury emissions a sham? Is the National Park system a sham? Are protected wilderness areas a sham?

  22. George says:

    Who say’s we’re going to avoid catastrophic warming? It’s already in the pipeline and is virtually unstoppable now.

    The science completely supports this fact. Articles that continue to misrepresent this staggering truth are disingenuous (stop publishing them).

  23. Gestur says:

    Jeff, nice to hear your clear, insightful voice again.

  24. Mark Haag says:

    Richard Nixon signed the clean water and air acts not because he was an environmentalist, but because he knew that people would come out in the streets.

    What is gained by saying nothing we do will work? What is the alternative? Will our refusal to try win us some “smart analyst” award from our grandchildren as the planet is destroyed? Do we want to go down fighting, or showing how our refusal to fight showed how smart we were?

  25. Gestur says:

    Joe, thanks for this honest piece on Obama and especially what happened in 2009. I agree with Maureen Dowd’s assessment completely and have done for some time; Maureen Dowd lite/condensed: “Obama is all gloss, no grit”.

  26. Gestur says:

    Jeff. I should have added: I voted for him once, but I’m no damn fool.

  27. Fred K says:

    I love you super geniuses and arm chair quarterbacks that say Obama should have done this or that. Give me a break! What Obama needs is some help in Congress and let’s get that for him by voting every last Republican out of office. Any lawmaker who denies climate change, accepts money from fossil fuel interests and doesn’t listen to the overwhelming evidence from science, then that person is unfit for office. Any lawmaker who can’t support common sense background checks for gun sales is also unfit for office. Vote these people out!!

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    All good, as far as they go, which is insufficient today. All achieved decades ago, by ‘radicals’ like Nixon, who was many things but not barking mad. All subjected to increasingly relentless attack by Rightwing ideologues who will, unless stopped, destroy them all in the name of ‘Freedom’. All administered indifferently, depending on who occupies the White House. All being chiseled away at by the destructocrats, their lawyers and ‘business-friendly’ courts.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m not against protesting, Mark, but I know that polite marching in the streets will be laughed at. And direct action will be crushed, and any sort of violent resistance is what the Bosses want, and if the environmentalists do not oblige, they’ll provide their own ‘false-flag’ nastiness. Of course it’s good to march. It’s healthy exercise, you meet nice people, exchange ideas, form alliances and get ready to face the disaster together, which will be beneficial. History tells us the steps by which a restive population removes a corrupt and insolent elite, and it’s not a dinner party sort of thing.

  30. BBHY says:

    Gun control failed because the Dems insist on abdicate power by continuing to support the filibuster rule. The US Constitution clearly specifies when a super majority is required; the ratification of treaties, impeachment, amendments to the constitution, etc.

    Votes on gun control do not require a super majority. Somehow Dem politicians have this crazy idea that the people who vote for them want them to cede control to the T-pubs. They are mistaken.

    When the T-pubs gain control the filibuster will be gone in a nanosecond.

  31. Joe Romm says:

    Like anyone else, I can only do what I can do. CP has been blunt about Obama’s failings.

  32. Superman1 says:

    One small oversight. ‘Winning’ requires giving the electorate what they want. Now, where’s the problem in that scenario?

  33. Superman1 says:

    “President Obama will only respond as far as he is pushed.” No different from any other politician. The reality is ‘we’, the seven billion inhabitants of this planet, don’t want to make the sacrifices required to save the biosphere, and therefore ‘we’ don’t exert any pressure on our political leaders to propose serious climate action.

  34. Jeff Huggins says:

    Joe, I appreciate CP, a lot, and know that you’ve been appropriately critical of the President. My (looking-forward) point or question is this: Shouldn’t genuinely ‘progressive’ folks who are serious about climate change make sure that there is an excellent Democrat candidate, or two or three, in the Democratic primary process to make sure the issue of climate change is a pivotal one next time around, and to make sure that no candidate (Hilary?) can get away with being luke-warm on the topic, noncommittal, vague, or likely to place words over actions once in office? AND, shouldn’t real progressives who are genuinely concerned about climate change ALSO pay attention to, and potentially support, a third-party candidate who is serious about climate change, if the Democrat-party process doesn’t result in one? These are the questions that should be asked and discussed now (even as the more important direct-activism ramps up in the meantime)! The movement traps itself by not seriously discussing these matters, not learning lessons from history very well, and only barely discussing them at a date when many people conclude that “it’s too late this time around; maybe next time”. The same pattern happens, over and over. IF we are serious, then these sorts of discussions should start to take place NOW. (McKibben’s fairly recent article was perhaps a starting point, in that he at least recognized the problem.)

    Be Well,


  35. fj says:

    It is useful to stress a system with a less important problem to get a feel how things work and to get a lay of the land.

    There’s no success like failure and failure is no success at all, goes that Bob Dylan line.

    Kill someone off in the first act if you want to get people’s attention is another.

    Climate change is the big one. Everything is at stake.

  36. fj says:

    Positive & negative reactions on Senate gun votes less about background checks than overall attitudes on #GunControl — Pew Research Center (@pewresearch)

  37. fj says:

    Surprising the potential of how terribly nuanced that political cartoon might be.

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Filibuster is part of the arsenal that the ‘Indispensable Enemies’ of the two Rightwing parties, pretend adversaries, use to ensure that change that threatens elite rule and power never occurs.