But even as the reviews come in from Denver, the message from the pulpit will likely be found lacking in result. That is what almost always happens. It was the case even before President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term. Certainly it was the case the first time a president hit the road to pressure Congress. That was Andrew Johnson with his famous two-week "swing around the circle" by train when his Reconstruction policies came under attack in 1866. Poet James Russell Lowell wrote that Johnson would be "indignantly remembered as the first, and we trust the last, of our chief magistrates who believed in the brutality of the people and gave to the White House the ill-savor of a corner grocery."
The method of transportation and the speed of communication have changed — but not the supreme confidence of presidents that they can use words to move votes. For Ronald Reagan, it was his oft-stated warning to lawmakers, "When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat." Reagan was called the Great Communicator, but his attempts to use his eloquence to move Congress most often came up short. That is the conclusion of George C. Edwards III, the presidential historian at Texas A&M University who has conducted the most in-depth study of the bully pulpit and who suggests this White House should lower its expectations for the current exercise.
"It is true for all presidents. They virtually never move public opinion in their direction," Edwards tells National Journal. Citing polling numbers for six decades and multiple presidents, he says, "It happened for Ronald Reagan. It happened for FDR. It happens all the time. You should anticipate failure if you're trying to change people's minds. The data is overwhelming." What Edwards learned is that presidents succeed in rallying the public when the public already agrees with them. The people agreed with Obama that the rich should pay more in taxes, agreed with Reagan that everybody should get a tax cut, and agreed with Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security. These presidents didn't need to move the needle on these issues; all they had to do was marshal support. But the same three presidents, using the same bully-pulpit tactics, failed to win over the people — and the lawmakers — on other fronts.
In Reagan's case, he never managed to persuade a majority of the public to support the Nicaraguan Contras, spend more on defense, or spend less on domestic programs. "He had a very difficult time in influencing the public on these," Edwards says. Similarly, four years of speeches have yet to gain solid public support for Obama's health care overhaul. And the president's many speeches on the sequester or on his jobs plan never won over the public, let alone members of Congress. "Now, he is doing it about guns," Edwards says. "And he's not going to have any more success.... Presidents just are not successful in changing people's minds."