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Varieties of the Bully Pulpit Argument


Corey Robin provoked a bit of disagreement recently tweeting this:

Touters of Obama’s effect on public opinion re gay marriage: I’m going to remember that next time we play a round of ‪#thepresidencyissoweak.

What interests me about this pre-emptive suggestion of hypocrisy is that as far as I can tell there has been a notable lack of hypocrisy.   People who believed in the power of the bully pulpit touted it this time too; people who don’t didn’t believe that Obama would more same-sex marriage more popular either.    And it’s also typical in that the data supports the latter position (or, at least, doesn’t support the former position.)

Anyway, given the discussion that came up in the Obama and SSM threads, it’s worth distinguishing between a variety of different arguments:

  • Whenever I mention the political science research about the effects of presidential rhetoric, this is frequently met with strawman accusations, arguments that nobody believes that presidents can rally public opinion in the short term.   The reaction to Obama’s position-taking on SSM, however, show that this isn’t a strawman at all.  Plenty of people — not just in out comments section but some of the most prominent voices in the liberal blogosphere — do in fact believe that the use of the bully pulpit should be expected to mobilize public opinion in the short term, even if it consists of answering a single question in an interview.
  • The short-term public opinion argument, of course, can also be seen quite a bit in the threads about Obama and the PPACA — plenty of people believe that Obama would have had more success using Clinton’s (failed) strategy of going public to shift public opinion in favor of health care reform.   The PPACA is more complicated, however, because arguments about the power of the BULLY PULPIT were made alongside a variety of assumptions about presidential power over legislation that I put under the snarky term “Green Laternism.”   There is an important distinction to be made here because unlike the power to use rhetoric to make things more popular some of these powers are actually real.  Agenda-setting, the veto, the contingent ability to influence marginal legislators — these actually exist, and indeed in some cases it is perfectly plausible to think that Obama could have used them more effectively.  It’s just that the PPACA isn’t one of those cases.    While there are some cases in which a president can exert decisive pressure on marginal senators, a case like the PPACA, where the votes of each and every one of a group of conservative Democrats who don’t care if anything passes and 1)aren’t up for re-election soon or ever, 2)represent states where Obama isn’t popular, or 3)both.   The veto doesn’t provide leverage when the president needs something to pass and median legislators don’t particularly care.   This is why the rare attempts to develop specific counterfactuals about how Obama could have gotten every one of Bayh, Nelson, Lieberman, et al.  to support a robust public option have been embarrassingly self-refuting. And this is also why bad bully pulpit arguments generally make an appearance sooner or later.
  • It is true that other bully pulpit arguments focus on long-term.   Some of these arguments focus on the time horizon of whole administrations, without understanding that Edwards has addressed the effects of the bully pulpit in this time frame as well, and found the same thing.  (Pretty much every one of the Great Communicator’s central agenda items was less popular in 1989 than they were in 1981.)  Some arguments focus on an even longer term than this and…well, it’s impossible to say what the long-term effects of presidential rhetoric are when the time horizons get long enough.   Once claims become vague and unfalsifiable enough they can’t be disproven, and it’s possible that the bully pulpit has long-range effects that aren’t easily visible.   I would say, however, that same-sex marriage is a good example of why I’m skeptical that changes in public opinion are largely driven by elite rhetoric.   The remarkable shift of public in favor of same-sex marriage has occurred during a time frame in which opponents of same-sex marriage have been much more forceful among political elites.   Obama’s endorsement of SSM was a big deal because Democrats have generally been timorous on this issue, while opponents of same-sex marriage have had no such reluctance.   Particularly since liberals who talk about the power of the bully pulpit tend also assume that Republicans are much better at messaging, it’s pretty hard to square this circle.   I wouldn’t say that elite political rhetoric doesn’t matter at all, but if you think that social change can be driven by top-down political rhetoric I’d love to hear an example.
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