As President Obama prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address, many Americans still wonder why his eloquence on the campaign trail didn’t translate into a greater ability to build support for his proposals once he took office. The explanation for this apparent disconnect between the president’s rhetorical prowess and results is not a shortcoming particular to Obama. Rather, it is the impotency of the so-called “bully pulpit” which he commands.
When Teddy Roosevelt coined the term, he did not intend for the phrase to contain negative implications; in the vernacular of his day, “bully” meant first-rate or excellent, reflecting his estimation that with the office came an opportunity to reach a vast audience. Today, the bully pulpit is widely held to impart significant advantage to presidents by equipping them with a powerful megaphone to persuade the American people and other political actors to support their positions. The platform is perceived to be especially potent because it is a prerogative all the president’s own, unencumbered by other branches of government. No member of Congress or Supreme Court justice can vet his prose.
Over the last century, presidents have availed themselves of this tool more than ever. The scholar Jeffrey Tulis found that 19th century presidents, on average, delivered about 10 speeches each year. According to CBS News, Obama delivered 411 speeches, comments, and remarks in his first year in office. And yet, scholars Raymond Tatalovich and Thomas S. Engeman have noted that “it is accepted wisdom that any president’s popularity will exhibit secular decline over the four-year term.” Presidents haven’t had great luck persuading Congress, either. The scholar George C. Edwards III studied 287 presidential legislative initiatives that he deemed to potentially significant and found that 41 percent became law. In other words, presidents lose most of the time.