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The Bully Pulpit Advantage: Budgets, Deficits and 2012

A few weeks ago, I mused in this space about why anyone would want to be president. This week, I had an epiphany. And so did Rep. Paul Ryan.

To understand this, it helps to be a student of the orchestrated political rollout. That’s when an individual carefully plots out in advance what he or she wants the next day’s headline to read – and then pulls it off.

Few are ever in a better position to do this than the President of the United States. Need proof? Just look at this past week’s budget debate.

It is fair to say that Ryan, R-Wis., the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, thought he would claim the mantle of deficit-slasher last week by unveiling a tough and uncompromising plan that proposed revamping Medicare and Medicaid and drastically rolling back national spending priorities.

But two things happened. For almost everyone except the most dedicated Washington reporters and bean counters, Ryan’s plan got lost in a more immediate – but heatedly short-term – debate over avoiding a government shutdown.

Then, after a deal was struck late last Friday, the president delivered a somber speech with the Washington Monument as a backdrop, and sprinted up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the next day to glad-hand tourists.

By Monday, the White House announced the president would be delivering a “major” speech on his plan to cut the deficit, but they kept the details mum until the day of the speech.

That’s when they announced that – surprise – the president would cut $4 trillion from the deficit – exactly the sum Ryan had announced in his earlier plan. That guaranteed him headlines Ryan could never have hoped for. And just in case anyone doubted Mr. Obama’s decision to claim Page One for himself, he used his George Washington University speech to declare Republicans were acting in bad faith.

“Put simply,” the president said in a line other Democrats dutifully recited during the next days, “it ends Medicare as we know it.”

No wonder Mr. Ryan looked so unhappy as cameras captured him striding from the auditorium after the president spoke – pursued by presidential adviser Gene Sperling, who was apparently trying to shake his hand. “Rather than building bridges,” Mr. Ryan said later, “he’s poisoning wells.”

The Obama maneuver demonstrates why people want to be president. No matter what your title – Governor, member of Congress, business mogul – it is nearly impossible to claim attention as effectively as the person whose name is on the bully pulpit.

This is why Donald Trump reportedly plans to signal his intentions about running for president on the season finale of “Celebrity Apprentice.”

This is why Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour attracted far more reporters than likely voters on Thursday when he visited a famous breakfast place and Riley’s Gun Shop – in Hooksett, N.H.

And it is why it has seemed so curious to watch other candidates like Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, stepping into the contest by way of low-profile non-announcements and web video instead.

But in our current media environment, winning the day’s headline battle is no longer the only path to winning the longer term war.

Plus, the higher the profile, the easier a target you can become. The latest Gallup Poll pegs Mr. Obama’s job approval rating at 42 percent, the lowest since his self-described “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections.

Keep all of this in mind as you watch the 2012 fight begin in earnest. Bully pulpits can help win the battle, but not necessarily the war.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

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