Home / General / Obama Embracing the Bully Pulpit?

Obama Embracing the Bully Pulpit?


I am agnostic on the Bully Pulpit debate we frequently have on the blog. I think both Scott and those who disagree with him make good points. So I don’t link to this Peter Baker piece in the Times how Obama’s governing style has changed with any agenda except that I think it’s an interesting data point in this debate.

How has Mr. Obama applied the lessons he learned? One day last spring, aides told him interest rates on federal student loans would double on July 1 unless Congress acted. Early on in his presidency, Mr. Obama might have invited lawmakers to the White House.

Instead, he headed to Air Force One and flew to college campuses in North Carolina and Colorado to castigate Congress for not heading off the rate hike. There was never any debate about the strategy; no one, even Mr. Obama, thought about talking with Republicans.

“Our view on student loans was they wouldn’t do it without really putting their backs against the wall,” said David Plouffe, the president’s senior adviser. “He realized this was a simple thing, it was clear, it was something we could motivate people on.”

Republicans angrily accused the president of bad faith. “He was making a political argument,” said Representative John Kline of Minnesota, chairman of the education committee. “I never saw any engagement from the White House about what really to do about it.”

Maybe so, but Obama aides crowed that it worked because Republicans instantly came out against the rate increase, too. Republicans said they saw it the other way, arguing that they defused the Obama attack by reacting quickly. Either way, it was a sign of how much the president had changed.


The breakdown of last year’s grand bargain talks proved a turning point. “That was a searing experience,” Mr. Plouffe recalled. The lesson: Forget negotiations and use the bully pulpit. Policy is not about applying reason; it’s about applying power.

“You’re never going to convince them by sitting around the table and talk about what’s good for the country,” said John D. Podesta, who ran Mr. Obama’s transition and still advises him occasionally. “You had to demonstrate that there’s political pain if you don’t produce an acceptable outcome.”


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  • Scott Lemieux

    All presidents embrace the bully pulpit. That doesn’t really tell us much about how effective it is.

    • Long-term no, short-term, some evidence on the student loan deal.

      • JRoth

        You didn’t seriously expect Scott to engage the evidence, did you Erik?

        Just give him a chance to warm up his ALL CAPS, and he’ll be ready for his usual thoughtful exploration of the topic.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Please to be stating how anything in this article contradicts anything I’ve written. Nobody disputes that the president has agenda-setting power.

          • If the president has agenda setting power, s/he has a bully pulpit.

            Difference in skill levels and judgment in using the bully pulpit does not negate it’s existence. What I think TR meant was that the bully pulpit provided unique access to present a case (set the agenda) under the best possible circumstances available, credible authority, guaranteed press coverage, etc. The bully pulpit does not assure an outcome, it assures consideration. So for me agenda setting = bully pulpit.

            • Then for you, the bully pulpit means something quite different than it does for most people who use the term.

              DADT repeal and health care reform were already very much front and center on the agenda when the bully pulpiteers began complaining that Obama wasn’t using the bully pulpit to get Congress to pass them.

              Most people use the term to refer to an alleged ability to sway people – both the general public, and legislators – into supporting the President’s agenda.

              • If you mean ‘most people at this site’ that apparently misunderstand it. I guess you are right.

                Oxford Dictionary

                bully pulpit

                Definition of bully pulpit
                [in singular]
                a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.

    • Bill Murray

      how do you measure the effectiveness of not letting the other side have all the publicity?

      People learn and make up their minds on issues through repetition, hearing an argument frequently; their judgement of the authority of the person/group making the argument and whether the argument is contested (and of course the authority of the contestor). if the sole purpose of the bully pulpit is to sway votes to your side that is very unlikely to be statistically significant, as has been found. But much like there is positive and negative justice, there are positive and negative uses of the bully pulpit.

      The President has a high level of authority, so can contest idiotic Republican (but I repeat myself) “ideas” quite well, sometimes swaying people to his side, and sometimes not losing people to the dark side. One of these is relatively easy to measure, one isn’t.

      • DrDick

        I would agree with this. I do not think that the President alone can move heaven and earth, but I do think he can, in conjunction with other voices and events, have an impact. My argument has never been in favor of the bully pulpit (though I am accused of it), but in opposition to presidential silence, which I think can negatively impact policy outcomes. As you say, letting the other side do all the talking hurts your position, whether or not you can improve it much by speaking out forcefully in its favor.

      • The President has a high level of authority

        The President has a high level of authority among people who are already inclined to support him, and a very low level of authority – even negative authority – among everyone else.

    • Bloix

      Okay, I’m going to do a J. Otto (see the “Caucasian dialect” discusion in the thread to the next post):

      The “bully pulpit” does NOT mean coercion by use of threats against Congress or other political actors to apply power to cause pain. It means the exact opposite.

      “Bully pulpit” was a TR coinage, and “bully!” was one of his favorite expressions. “Bully” as he used it is an obsolete slang word meaning “Grand!” “Awesome!” “Groovy!” “Fuckin’-A!” “Ridiculous!” “Sick!” – pick your decade.

      TR’s “bully” has nothing to do with bullying or with bulls. It’s related to “ebullient.” Both words come a root that means “boiling or bubbling over, frothing up.” “Bully” means something like, “a thing that causes you to bubble over with eager enthusiasm.”

      A little etymological aside: the origin of “bulls” on Wall Street was from the idea of investors being “bullish,” that is, enthusiastic, about a stock. The image of the literal bull is a folk etymology.

      So the TR’s image of the presidency as a “bully pulpit” is the idea of the president’s access to a grand pulpit – a metaphorical preacher’s platform, high above the metaphorical congregation that is the people of the United States – from where the president can preach to the American people directly. It’s about the President’s ability to command the discussion, not to bend arms in order coerce Congress or political leaders.

  • Well, I would say that the obvious problem trying to blend the two analyses is that there’s a very big difference between dealing with an opposition Congress and one in which your party has large majorities in both houses.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Serious consideration of the political impact of presidential speechmaking starts from careful consideration of stories like this rather than from the easy refutation of idiotic (and often strawman-y) claims that the President can accomplish anything whatsoever if he just talks about it the right way. I’d note, too, that one interesting thing about this story is that the purpose of the speechmaking was not so much to change public opinion as to reframe the debate in Congress. Studies that show that presidential speechmaking can’t move public opinion on domestic issues do not take full account of the potential political impacts of presidential speechmaking.

    • This. What this is an example of is mobilizing your supporters / people with a direct stake in a policy issue, not an attempt to move public opinion polls in the hope that it changes policy outcomes. All the heat around bully pulpit arguments makes it difficult to notice that this is the real issue.

      I’d add too that going to campuses to hold rallies (i.e. not just give a speech) is only one way to mobilize people, so efforts to isolate the impact (or lack thereof) of this one element aren’t necessarily the most helpful way to ask the question.

    • DrDick


    • It was precisely through bashing the living hell out of the non-straw-man-ey claims that the bully pulpit could have made Congress pass the public option and expand the Recovery Act that we were able to get the bully pulpiteers to whittle down their argument to something this rational.

      Don’t tell me those arguments are a straw man. I lived in this country in 2009-2010.

  • And then Obama went off and blew the Republicans, producing a bad long-term deal for the United States.

    If this is how he uses the bully pulpit, then Scott’s correct that there isn’t one. If, however, you concede that the fault lies not with the pulpit but the bully…

  • Gabriel Mares

    I suppose one way of thinking about this: the question about whether BULLY PULPIT works on public opinion is the wrong one (sorta like, “Do Americans want to intervene in Upper Andromeda?” It depends – after a fiasco like Somalia, no, after a roaring success(TM) like Libya or Panama 1990, then yes. Doesn’t make a whit of difference about whether we can actually deploy troops there before it becomes a supernova, then a black hole). Rather, the question is, have politicians and their staffs convinced themselves that the BULLY PULPIT is powerful, and thus change their course of action (in either direction) as a result? I don’t know the literature on the latter question, but it seems to me that the potential for their being a big disparity between the two questions is great. Think about how many politicians (and media figures) convinced themselves that entitlement reform had to happen when a number of Very Serious People in DC started banging on tables about it – I doubt Americans support cutting Social Security and Medicare, but it’s now the “fiscally responsible position” in DC.

    • Gabriel Mares

      *there, not their.

      And the “fiscally responsible position” I suspect is a bit like the missionary position – everyone claims to be in it, but it’s boring and no one stays in it for very long.

    • Think about how many politicians (and media figures) convinced themselves that entitlement reform had to happen when a number of Very Serious People in DC started banging on tables about it?

      Are you talking about 1982? 1990? 1994? 1999?

      How about 2005, when Bush began his awesomely effective effort to privatize Social Security?

      When, exactly, were Very Serious People in DC not banging on tables about it? When, exactly, were entitlement cuts not an important part of the agenda of the right half of the American political culture? For a few months in 1963?

  • ploeg

    A bully pulpit works insofar as there is latent support for your position that must be mobilized and focused. But a bully pulpit does not create support where there is no support.

    • ploeg

      Of course, the influence of the bully pulpit has decreased over time, since there are a great many more ways to mobilize and focus support than there were back in the day.

    • Anderson

      And that’s exactly where Obama’s fallen short. Look at poll after poll saying the elements of Obamacare were popular while the overall legislation wasn’t.

      That CRIED OUT for some presidential effort at communication – hell, Ross Perot with his charts would’ve been something.

      Maybe Obama should announce his intention to kick Biden off the ticket, replace him with Bill, and then resign on January 21, 2013. (Typing that, I had a sudden chill, as tho some PajamasPundit had made the same suggestion. I’m afraid to google it.)

      • Scott Lemieux

        That CRIED OUT for some presidential effort at communication

        And, of course, there was an extensive presidential effort at communication. The fact that nobody remembers it is a good example of why people massively overrate the power of the bully pulpit. Drew Westen himself apparently can’t remember most of what the president says.

        • Bill Murray

          there also was an extensive effort at denigrating PPACA. How popular would the PPACA be if the President hadn’t made an extensive effort at communication?

        • Anderson

          And, of course, there was an extensive presidential effort at communication.

          Like what?

        • Dana

          And, of course, there was an extensive presidential effort at communication.

          You’ve stated this before as evidence for your point of view Scott but if there was such an effort many of us who follow politics pretty closely seem to have missed it. What I saw was a White House that seemed to regard the whole health care thing as someone else’s problem or something for the squabbling children in Congress to figure out. And I’m not the only one who has trouble recalling this effort (Anderson’s comment @ 1:00, for example). I do remember a September 2009 press conference or something by Obama after the death panels absurdness had dragged on dominating headlines for weeks (months?) without coherent response from anyone on the other side. I don’t remember any rally-style speechifying along the lines of the student loan debate. And that sort of campaigning seems requisite to anything that could be called an extensive effort.

          • How about making it the most important plank in two consecutive State of the Union speeches?

            If there is any embodiment of the bully pulpit, it is in the President’s annual speech to Congress.

            • Anonymous

              Last night showed that TOTUS has lost the magic, joe. Same old, same old.

              Time for a Change.

    • mpowell

      This should be further modified. It’s not just about public support for policies. It also involves the commitments of your opposition party. The Republican party and it’s support structure didn’t want healthcare reform and the bully pulpit was not going to change that simple political fact.

      On the other hand, Republicans didn’t have any principled commitments to letting loan rates rise. But if Obama had gone to the House and asked for a bill, they would have negotiated as though he was asking for a lot, because they’re not actually interested in good governance. So Obama turned the tables by making it a priority for them.

      This is politics and the same tactic will work quite a bit differently when the policy you’re talking about has different levels of support and salience.

  • Joshua

    Would he have invited lawmakers to the WH for an issue like this?

    • Cody

      Very insulting to Republicans. After all the hard work they did cooperating with him. How could he disrespect the poor souls so!?

  • TT

    The enemy always has a say in these matters. On student loans and the payroll tax cut Republicans were willing to cut their losses on issues which they as a party were not completely unified, so giving Obama a small win on either issue would not be decisive electorally. However, on much larger issues, where inflicting maximum political defeat on Obama can be devastating, whether it’s the ACA, taxes and the budget, or the debt ceiling, Republicans are remarkably disciplined and unified, for both philosophical reasons and out of purely cynical political calculation. No amount of Bully Pulpiting can or will move them.

  • bob mcmanus

    Wait, I have to consult zombie Benito and zombie Adolf to see if politicians can actually mobilize their followers to any significant ground effect or influence public opinion.

    Nah, millions would have died on the Eastern Front with or without leadership.

    • ploeg

      Obviously those millions lacked sufficient national socialist ardour.

    • Hogan

      Yes, that’s why there was no need to pass an Enabling Act less than a month after the Reichstag fire–Hitler’s speeches had already won everybody over to an invasion of the Soviet Union eight years later.

    • Nobody has ever claimed that political rhetoric cannot mobilize one’s followers.

      I eagerly await your evidence that Hitler’s speeches moved German public opinion outside of people who were already committed to his ideas.

  • Njorl

    This was something that Republicans were willing to do before Obama started the PR campaign. The issue was how to pay for it. The cost was reduced by limiting eligibility of loans, and the funds were raised by increasing penion liability insurance payments. While taking money from businesses probably wasn’t the Republican’s first choice, they had been complaining that the pension insurance program was underfunded, and were considering calling for increases to those premiums anyway.

    I don’t think you can say that the Bully Pulpit changed anyone’s mind as to which side of an issue they should be on. I think it changed the political calculus as to whether an issue should be dealt with or left to fester.

  • dougR

    I could be wrong, but I always had the idea that using the presidential ‘bully pulpit’ meant not only campaigning on an issue (in the same way candidate Obama campaigned on issues), but also getting ‘on the muscle’ behind the scenes, using the power of the presidency to move party apparatus and key actors to get momentum going on the thing you’re advocating for. (I believe LBJ was a master at this, and I can’t believe Obama’s cabinet couldn’t have contained people who were somewhat adept at it too). Maybe my definition is too expansive, but fer pete’s sake, if you’re going to campaign-promise to get your shoes on a picket line if you’re elected, and then sit out Wisconsin once you’re in the White House, that’s kind of the opposite of using the bully pulpit. What I wished for, with Obama, was not so much a Commander in Chief, as an “activist in chief,” and I’d argue that’s what he campaigned as. Will he use the ‘bully pulpit’ in a second term? I see no evidence he or his aides have the faintest idea what it even is, the student loan deal notwithstanding.

  • Like the Elliot Ness character in The Untouchables, he has become what he once hated. He’s putting his thumb on the scale, and that’s a good thing. He (finally) got disabused of the idea that we have an environment in which lots of fair people on all sides want to join hands and come up with solutions, and realizes that we are fighting a war with enemies who want to destroy, even if it leaves guts spattered all over the playing field.

    This doesn’t work all the time, but on issues in which the majority agree with the president, it can work. What I wish he would do more often is use the bully pulpit to at least reframe the terms of a political argument. What has happened in the last 30 years is that the right controls the assumptions and terms of debates, so that left-based arguments can only lose. Maybe he won’t win ’em all, but he can set the table for winning them further down the road.

  • Fake Irishman

    One thing I think the debates here ignore is that presidential communication to the public is mediated through the press. The president does have a unique power to access the media the few other individuals do, but he alone does not set the tone or framing of the coverage.

  • scott

    The people who have had the real-world experience of running an administration the last 4 years know that the President of the United States is not a powerless figure in setting and influencing the terms of the debate. This proves to me that they are not, in fact, delusional and that Obama aspires to be something more than the Bystander President (or an immobile Buddha figure), that he would like to be an actor shaping the debate in the way he (rather than his enemies) would like. Definitely an encouraging sign and one that we should all applaud.

  • Jon Pennington

    I don’t think Obama’s bully pulpit can necessarily turn an unpopular policy into a popular policy, but I do think it’s probably more effective than negotiation in getting the Republicans to budge from a countermajoritarian position opposed by a supermajority of voters.

  • He had a choice? Weaker Boener stabbed him in the back on the debt deal. Why would he even try to negotiate with a man who couldn’t deliver a pizza much less his party?

  • One of the Blue

    My own view as expressed elsewhere is that the primary purpose of the bully pulpit is to rally (and sometines convince) the President’s supporters on an issue and persuade them that he is serious about the particular issue.

    Only if those supporters are sufficiently numerous or become sufficiently motivated, does this approach have any hope of convincing opponents.

  • Anonymous

    Mediocre, tepid speech last night.

    Another dismal jobs report this morning.

    More failed leadership. The DNC was nothing but Barack Obama’s retirement party.

    Start packing liberals. It’s time for a change.

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