“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.