The Myth of the Bully Pulpit

Presidents can talk all they want (and they do), but it won't get results.

President Barack Obama speaks at the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colo., with local law enforcement officials and community leaders attending following a meeting to discuss the state's new measures to reduce gun violence, Wednesday, April 3, 2013.  (AP)

The script doesn't change. When a legislative initiative important to a president stalls, every White House, Republican or Democratic, has the same response: Rev the engines on Air Force One and get out of town, with the determination to demonstrate that the American people are solidly behind the embattled proposal and ready to rise up and punish members of Congress who dare oppose it.

Today's story, with important votes looming on gun legislation (and later on immigration and the debt ceiling), is no different. So President Obama, who has proven he is no more immune to the impulse than any of his predecessors, found himself delivering his latest appeal on guns to a receptive audience in Denver on Wednesday. The hope is that enough Republicans will be moved by the stirring presidential rhetoric and the enthusiastic applause to break with GOP orthodoxy and vote with him on what he calls "commonsense measures" to combat gun violence.

The White House insists this is no one-and-done effort. Next week comes a trip to Connecticut, the state where the current push on guns was born. It was there, in Newtown, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults, firing 155 shots in less than five minutes on Dec. 14. "You will see the president using the power of the bully pulpit ... by traveling across the country a little bit and talking about some of these issues," promises deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

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."

Another historian, David Greenberg of Rutgers University, thinks Edwards "overstates" the case, contending that "the bully pulpit can still work in terms of framing issues, putting issues on the agenda." But he agrees that "it is not the magic bullet that it's often made out to be." On guns, Greenberg notes that trying to rouse the public to move Republican votes is particularly unlikely because of the makeup of most GOP House districts. "Even if they are out of step with national opinion, they are in step with their own local district opinion, and that's what counts for them."

Obama also has to deal with a reality of the modern media. Today's bully pulpit, observes Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential expert at Princeton University, has been "emasculated" by an environment in which niche conservative media and Fox News have just as powerful a megaphone as the president does. "The bully pulpit was always limited. Congress always had the ability to check a president who is running around the country calling for things," Zelizer says. "But now it is getting even harder to use.... It is harder to get people to listen at all."

The background noise won't stop the president from following the tried-and-true script. But he should understand that the final scene rarely plays as written.