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The Bully Pulpit - a Rejoinder by James Vega


Let me begin with a confession. When I wrote the piece under discussion I knew that people would tend to interpret it entirely in relation to Obama and that they would fiercely argue that he has done an absolutely miserable job of exploiting such actual opportunities as the "bully pulpit" does indeed provide - thinking that they were thereby refuting my argument.

But that's simply and very emphatically not what my argument was really about. In fact, I completely agree with the generally critical view of Obama's communications strategy. Since the spring and fall of 2009, Obama's messaging and rhetoric has repeatedly (and unnecessarily) demoralized the Democratic base while failing to win the support of the moderate voters he hoped to bring to his side.

There is, in fact, an absolutely extraordinary consensus within the Democratic community today - one that stretches from "inside the beltway" tacticians like Jon Chait and Greg Sargent and opinion poll experts like Stan Greenberg to grass-roots leaders like Bob Borosage and progressive stalwarts like Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and a host of others. Virtually every major sector of the Democratic coalition has now come to the conclusion that Obama's attempts to communicate with the American people and win their support since spring 2009 have been profoundly inadequate and ineffective.

There are probably a hundred different specific criticisms one can make, the large majority of them quite plausible. Here are several entirely sensible ones noted in the reply to my post by Tom Phillips:


"...The GOP mentioned jobs and the economy, too, and I couldn't tell them (D's and R's) apart."

"... [Obama's] jobs proposals got completely drowned out in the debt/government-spending debacle".

... [Obama's] 19 trips to 22 projects [were] mostly in daytime, mostly in the Midwest, mostly in businesses...

... [Obama's advocacy of clean energy jobs were] "boring and removed from our day-to-day concerns"

The truth is that it is not hard to dissect every single specific aspect of Obama's communications and find a multitude of things that were done wrong.

But Obama's particular use (or non-use) of the bully pulpit was emphatically not the issue I was raising in my strategy memo. The examples I noted involving Obama were all designed for the sole purpose of illustrating the defensive, after-the-fact rationalization style of argument that pro-Bully Pulpit advocates use when challenged, not that Obama's strategy itself was sound or correct.

Quite the contrary, precisely because of the near-universal agreement among Democrats (including myself) that Obama's use of the "bully pulpit" has been essentially a failure, a very sloppy and superficial alternative notion has increasingly gained very widespread currency - the notion that "if Obama (or any other future president) would just use the bully pulpit he could transform the national debate." It's an incredibly appealing argument because it dramatically expresses the frustration Democrats are now feeling about Obama and one that seems to offer a clear and coherent alternative.

But this "the bully pulpit can transform the national debate" idea is one that I think is both fundamentally wrong and profoundly dangerous.

Jon Chait described it very accurately as a delusion in his discussion of Drew Westen's flamboyantly operatic version of the thesis he presented in the New York Times. As Chait said:

The delusion rests on the [liberal-progressive] assumption that the timidity of their leaders is the only thing preventing their side from enjoying total victory...Westen's op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president is the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric.

The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen's telling, every known impediment to legislative progress -- special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion -- are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama's failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.

Progressives will complain that this represents a caricature of their views but -- I'm sorry guys but let's face it - a look at comment threads, blog posts, commentaries on Huffpo, Daily Kos, FDL, Salon, AlterNet, Mother Jones and literally a thousand other locations will reveal descriptions of the vast power of the bully pulpit when properly employed whose melodramatic theatricality essentially matches Chait's tongue-in-cheek description.

It is this notion that I am calling absolutely and fundamentally wrong. It is what I called in my memo "magical thinking"--the notion that unleashing the power of presidential rhetoric (AKA the bully pulpit) represents a distinct, alternative strategy that can dramatically transform the American political debate.

Tom Phillips, in his reply to my post, is far more level headed and practical than many advocates of the bully pulpit -- which makes his comments a more useful basis for discussion. Here's how he defines what the bully pulpit does:

• "The bully pulpit is a prominent call to action, a persuasive case for change... using the Presidency's formidable power to persuade..."

• "[Obama] needs to put forth a set or sets of proposals - specific, bold, significant and likely to be effective within months..."

• "He must give aggressive leadership to his party and the public...something the American people and editorial boards and state and local officials can relate to."

This certainly sounds like a distinctly different approach than what Obama is doing. And it is quite similar to the prescriptions offered by many other political commentators, including many of the leading progressive figures.

But, wait a minute -- look what happens when we remove the adjectives from this description. The proposals become:

• Issue a call to action, a case for change

• Put forth a set of proposals

• Give leadership to the party and public

It suddenly becomes clear that it is actually the florid and passionate adjectives that are doing all of the heavy lifting in this characterization of the bully pulpit - "persuasive", "prominent", "formidable", "specific", "bold", "significant", "aggressive". Without them it becomes quite obvious that the bully pulpit is not actually a distinct and alternative strategy to what Obama is doing but rather a demand that he do the same basic things that all presidents try to do but simply to do them far, far, far better than he has in the recent past.

There is absolutely nothing to disagree with in this recommendation - hell, I agree with it myself. But it provides not a shred of evidence for the proposition that "If Obama would just use the bully pulpit he could transform the national debate." The "shorn of adjectives" version of the above description illustrates that there really is no distinct "thing" - no distinct political strategy -- called the bully pulpit that a president can choose to employ or not employ and whose effects, when utilized, are guaranteed to be decisive in political debate.

Many readers will find this difficult to accept. The adjective-laden version of the description above seems to describe something that feels vividly and palpably real. Readers old enough to regret their age and forget their glasses will quickly think of Lyndon Johnson dramatically declaiming "we shall overcome" in one presidential address and calling for (and defining) the "War on Poverty" in another. These two speeches certainly seem like a living concrete illustration of the three points above.

But nostalgia, regrettably, is a better guide to one's old high school crushes than it is to political strategy. On more careful reflection anyone who lived through those years will remember that Johnson's speeches most certainly did not shape national opinion, they were a response to national opinion - a national opinion that had formed because of thousands of demonstrations for civil rights in lunch counters and interstate busses across the South, hundreds of protesters beaten with clubs and attacked with dogs on national television, four little girls blown to pieces in a Birmingham church, a march on Washington for jobs and freedom that was, for its time, even more impressive than the massive crowds at Obama's inauguration, a generation of young people who had memorized the lyrics to Blowing in the Wind and used those words to guide their active participation in a nationwide explosion of social activism and an emerging consensus in the national press and even corporate boardrooms that the status quo was simply unsustainable. Johnson did not create this social hurricane, he responded to it.

As a result, I stand by my conclusion, exactly as I stated it in the original piece:

There is actually very little evidence in either the historical record or public opinion research to support the view that the bully pulpit can create major attitude change. Even such famous examples of presidential rhetoric as Lyndon Johnson's "We shall overcome" speech supporting the Civil Rights Bill or Ronald Reagan's often quoted speech asserting that "government is the problem not the solution" did not produce any major epiphany-like transformations of attitudes that opinion polls could detect. The hundreds of more routine presidential speeches over the last 40 years have had even less effect...


...The truth is that the bully pulpit notion has become a convenient way to attribute all of the obstacles and problems progressives face to one single, simple cause --the fecklessness, cowardice or ideological centrism of the president and elected Democrats. The view is extremely popular among progressives because it reduces the complicated challenge of winning majority support for progressive views to a simple matter of waiting for the right individual to come along and wave the magic wand - and excoriating every existing president as a failure when he proves unable to do so.


But it is now time to face the fact: the statement that "if Obama would just use the bully pulpit he could transform the national debate" is not a conclusion based on data; it is an incantation based on magical thinking. To convince yourself of this, just replace the words "the bully pulpit" with "Harry Potter's magic wand" and notice how sentence makes just as much grammatical sense - and has just as much concrete and specific empirical evidence in its support -- as before.

The truth is that the "bully pulpit" is a significant but clearly limited tool of political persuasion. It is not a magic wand that can radically transform the national debate and break the hold of conservative ideology. It's time for progressives to stop talking about it as if it were.