I’ve been meaning to say more George Edwards’s masterwork On Deaf Ears, and since in a recent thread we had someone articulating the full-on bully pulpit myth in this thread, now is as good a time as any.
To expand a bit on what I’ve said before, On Deaf Ears evaluates the evidence with respect to the “bully pulpit” effect in several ways. He examines the secondary literature, which going back to FDR and his fireside chats finds no evidence on a bully pulpit effect. (Despite his popularity, FDR was generally unable to move the public in the direction of the merits of his policy positions.) Then, as tough cases since they were seen as effective communicators and were easily re-elected, he carefully examines the Reagan and Clinton presidencies, and (with one exception I’ll get to in a second) finds no case where a president “going public” shifted public opinion. (The more Reagan talked spoke in support of aid to the Contras, for example, the less popular the policy got with the public.) And this was also true with respect to the medium term as well; support for tax cuts, increased defense spending, decreased civil rights enforcement, and decreased social welfare spending was if anything less at the end of the Great Communicator’s two terms than it was at the beginning, and nor did Clinton show any ability to orient the public towards his policy preferences. The only two cases where presidential speeches were followed by an increase in popular support for presidential initiatives were 1)Reagan’s bombing of Libya, and 2)the first president Bush and the Gulf War. Since this effect doesn’t transfer to domestic politics and nobody considers George H.W. Bush a master communicator, it’s almost certainly the war rally effect rather than the power of presidential rhetoric per se that’s doing the work.
But the particularly striking example, which Edwards spends a lot of time on, is Clinton and health care. Clinton, in short, did everything that armchair critics of Obama assure us would have produced a better bill than the ACA. The administration crafted a plan itself rather than waiting for Congress to act, and using extensively tested strategies made a conscious decision to “go public” and try to indirectly pressure members of Congress to support its bill by making it more popular. Of course, this approach couldn’t have worked out any less well; presidential communication didn’t make Clinton’s proposals any more popular, and Democrats in Congress who had been largely cut out of the loop didn’t have Clinton’s back. And while it happened after On Deaf Ears came out, George W. Bush on Social Security tried pretty much the same allegedly brilliant approach as Clinton with exactly the same dismal results (no increase in popular support for the initiative, no traction in Congress.)
As Edwards says, the lesson that the Clinton administration drew from its health care failure was that its communication wasn’t good enough. And even if they spend a lot of time asserting that Bush had Congress wrapped around his finger, bully pulpit believers have a million excuses for why Bush using their preferred approach with Social Security and bellyflopping doesn’t count. And, sure, no individual case can disprove the power of the bully pulpit. But the sheer consistency is pretty much dispositive. Granted, Clinton’s health care strategy might (or might not) have worked better if he had Obama’s margin in the Senate to work with. But 1)Obama had very good reasons for not wanting to emulate that approach. and 2)there’s than no reason to think it would have produced a better result and 3)there was a very real risk it would have ended up in health care reform failing entirely yet again.