The Power of the Bully Pulpit

April 19, 2011

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” – Theodore Roosevelt[i]

President Theodore Roosevelt poignantly coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the president’s ability to leverage his stature in order to dominate media messaging and push a specific agenda. Rooseveltwas a master at manipulating media, much to the consternation of his political opponents.  He was known to give insider tips to reporters who responded with favorable stories.  In addition, his first State of the Union Address, known as the Message to Congress back then, was nearly 20,000 words long or approximately three times longer than President Obama’s State of theUnionin January 2011.

Franklin Roosevelt continued the family tradition of leveraging the bully pulpit for political advantage.  He successfully coerced the media to photograph him in certain ways to mitigate public knowledge of his paralysis and simultaneously charmed them with weekly off-the-record question and answer sessions.

Even in our present day, media saturated society, the power of the presidential bully pulpit still resonates.  Its influence was never clearer than during the final days leading up to the expiration of the FY11 continuing resolution in early April.  Prior to April 1, Obama seemingly stayed above the fray of Congressional budget negotiations.  But beginning April 4, with the launch of his reelection campaign, Obama leveraged his position to establish himself as a mediating voice in an increasingly acrimonious debate.

In order to measure media influence, we studied the amount of Google News hits from April 4-13 for Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – the four most influential voices during budget negotiations.  Obama dominated the airways with an average of 69,330 Google news hits per day.  This is more than twice as much as John Boehner (26,790) and Paul Ryan (26,500), and approximately four times greater than Harry Reid (17,790).

Despite Chairman Ryan unveiling a House Republican budget plan on April 5, the president still received more national media attention.  When Obama unveiled his own long-term budget plan on April 13, Boehner was unable to garner media interest in a press conference he scheduled approximately one hour before the president’s speech.

The advent of social media and proliferation of alternative news sources has done nothing to mitigate the power of the bully pulpit.  Similar to presidents before, Obama was able to leverage his position to dictate the narrative during budget negotiations.  In addition, he continued to set the tone for future budget talks on April 13 with his blistering rebuke of Chairman Ryan’s plan while simultaneously proposing his own alternative.

It is important to remember that the bully pulpit is only as powerful as the president wants it to be.  The president is always capable of setting the tone for debate, but sitting idle on the sidelines can lead to alternative messages spinning out of control.  This was never more apparent than during the early days of the health care reform debate in 2009, when accusations of socialism and death panels filled the airways while the Senate dragged negotiations along for months.

This time around, President Obama certainly took a page from his predecessors.  It will be interesting to see how he leverages his pulpit when Congress returns in May and the debt ceiling takes center stage.


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Party Website Wars (Part Two)

September 26, 2010

After reviewing the DNC’s new Website last week, it is time to fixate our eyes on the RNC’s revamped www.gop.com.

As the minority party, the site takes a very aggressive tone. When opening the home page, there are two images with rotating messages – these messages include:

  • Where’s the Bus? – redirects visitors to www.firepelosibus.com
  • Deficit of Hope – opens a negative video regarding the President, stimulus and budget deficit
  • Stop Obama, Start Volunteering – redirects visitors to volunteer.gop.com, which presents upcoming volunteer opportunities and a video message from Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN)
  • Get Your Fire Pelosi Gear Now – redirects visitors to the GOP store
  • Volunteer from Home – redirects visitors to volunteer.gop.com
  • Show your Support – presents GOP donation opportunities

Of the six rotating messages, four are negative. This is an example of the Republican strategy heading into the midterms. Somewhat surprisingly, the new House Republican agenda unveiled by Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) on Thursday is no where to be seen on the Website – minimizing its significance during the campaign season.

Scrolling down the page, there are three subsets with the headers “Steps to Victory”, “Trending” and “New & Noteworthy.” Further down the page there are imbedded campaign videos from Republican candidates throughout the country. This is something the Democratic Party lacks on its home page. The videos are effective in highlighting top-tier candidates and top-level Republican messages.

An innovative feature of gop.com is RNC Women. Just as the DNC has a Spanish option specifically to connect with Hispanic constituents, the RNC has a specific site dedicated for outreach to women. RNC Women spotlights female Republican candidates, contains RNC Women social media links, and has female-specific resources such as videos, training manuals, groups and polling.

The RNC’s Website also contains a customization option for the home page. Visitors can change the color of the page, enter their zip code and highlight issues that are most important to them.  This tool – despite its prominent positioning on the page – is not very effective. Allowing users to control the look of gop.com eliminates the Republican Party’s ability to brand itself. In addition, the zip code and issue elements do not appear to have any redeeming value. After entering those into the system, the home page does not change and it lacks the local flare of the DNC’s site.

Objectively, the site could use more social media interaction. While the DNC directed supporters to individual candidates’ Facebook and Twitter pages, the RNC only directs visitors to official RNC social media sites.  In addition, gop.com lacks interactive elements such as the iPhone canvassing app and localized content. These differences are indicative of party strategies for November with the Democrats trying to localize races while the Republicans are working toward a national referendum.

The RNC does a great job of incorporating video on its Website and those videos coupled with attack-oriented merchandise and alternative Websites – such as www.firepelosibus.com – will go a long way toward driving the Republican base to voting booths on November 2.