Representing Public Opinion or the Public?

Rutgers University Professor David Greenberg wrote an article about President Teddy Roosevelt, “Beyond the Bully Pulpit”, in the Summer 2011 issue of THE WILSON QUARTERLY.  Greenberg credits (or blames!) TR with being the president who made “spin” “a fundamental part of the American presidency.”   The article is a worthy read.

In our current political crisis of dealing with the US budget deficit and the growing national debt and the need to raise the debt ceiling, we can watch our politicians spinning the events every which way as part of the blame game.   They more often seem to have their eyes on the next election and what is good for their political party (what appeals to their party’s base) rather than on what is needed for America.  Greenberg writes about President T Roosevelt:

“Unlike most of his predecessors, Roosevelt saw himself as an instrument not of the party that elected him or of the coalition of blocs, but of the will of the people at large.  Deriving his power from the general public, however, did not mean slavishly following mass sentiment; TR, like Wilson after him, wanted to discern with his own judgment which policies would truly serve the electorate as a whole.  ‘I do not represent public opinion,’ he wrote to the journalist Ray Stannard Baker.  ‘I represent the public.  There is a wide difference between the two, between the real interests of the public and the public’s opinion of these interests.’  He spoke of the common good as if such a unitary thing were not hard to identify, at least for him.

Modern politicians are finely tuned to public opinion.   This certainly makes it seem that they place their own re-elections and the interests of their political parties ahead of what is needed and good and right for the country as a whole.  They too narrowly focus on things that have an immediate impact because that can help (or hurt) in the upcoming election, whereas long term solutions may be of no immediate help to their immediate re-election needs nor to their party’s gaining power now.  No doubt that is why we have the national debt problems we have – short term popular decisions are made with no regard to their long term consequences to the nation.

Our current debt crisis demands long term solutions, some of which may not benefit either major political party now and in fact might be so unpopular as to hurt both or either party now.  Voters want as many entitlements as they can get (and this includes wealthier voters who get all kinds of tax break entitlements and other benefits) and want all kinds of government benefits without having to pay for them or to bear the burden of the cost of them.  (Founding Father James Madison, for example, argued that the cost of all wars should be born by the generation that called for the war and these costs should not be postponed and then laid on future generations).   As a result of these wishes, public opinion often demands more from the government while simultaneously expecting less taxes.  The end result is politicians finely attuned to public opinion who find it easy to approve more government programs while simultaneously reducing the tax burden (This certainly was the formula followed by GW Bush and continued to this present day).

I’m still hoping to see our elected officials do the hard thing – adopt a 4 trillion dollar budget, deficit and debt reducing plan that has long term implications rather than a short term “fix”.  

To our congressman I say:  Serve the public interest not the fickleness of public opinion.  Be willing to sacrifice your re-election by making the hard decisions that must be made today for the US to have a stronger financial tomorrow.