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.



State of the Union Multimedia

January 29, 2011

The State of the Union address is always an exciting time for political junkies.  The proliferation of technology has continuously changed the address and created ample opportunities for the President’s supporters and opponents to express their opinions.  No longer do Members of Congress have to file into Statutory Hall in the hopes of garnering a 15 second sound byte on the national news, although many still do.  Politicians can now take command of their message and ensure it reaches their core audience.

Instead of delving into the policies presented in the speech, which many pundits already have, we are going to examine the ways in which Members of Congress leveraged the Web to ensure their voices were heard during the important occasion.

Following the Congressional Twitter stream on www.c-span.org, two Representatives stood out as the most active during the speech.  Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA) was the most outspoken critic of the President’s address.  It was revealed on national news the next day that the Congressman watched the address from his office instead of the House floor.  During the speech he presented many critiques such as “Obama’s policies kill free-enterprise.” Ultimately, the Congressman’s efforts were rewarded as national news programs, such as Hardball with Chris Matthews, publicized Broun’s activities, giving the Georgia Representative more publicity than virtually all of his colleagues.

Congressman Keith Ellison (DFL-MN) was the most prolific Democratic Twitter user during the speech.  The third term Congressman expressed elation and consternation at many of the President’s policy positions.  The Congressman now has nearly 10,000 Twitter followers, a very strong number for a Representative.  Organizing for America also tweeted live during the speech, repeating many of the President’s key phrases and policy positions.

After the speech concluded, many Members expressed their initial reactions via social media.  Some Congressman took it a step further, delivering their initial remarks with video.  While Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) was delivering the official Republican response to the State of the Union, leading House GOP members including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) responded to supporter questions received via Twitter on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s YouTube page.  In addition, Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) streamed his response live via UStream.

The White House joined in on the most wired State of the Union address in history.  WhiteHouse.gov streamed the address live and had policy advisors answer questions from Americans following the President’s speech.  In addition, the website had a seating chart identifying who was sitting with the First Lady.

Technology’s affect on the State of the Union is truly remarkable.  The President even joked, as he was walking toward the podium, that the address had already been leaked for hours and there was no purpose for him to read it.  Technology will play an even greater role in the years to come.  More people will watch the speech leveraging a mobile device and Members of Congress will become more creative in expressing their views.

Lastly, as a side note, will a staffer please buy Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN) a DVR or Tivo.  This is 2011, the technology is available to watch two things at once.