Is the presidential bully pulpit dead?

June 24, 2013

The Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups. Congressional testimony on what went wrong -- and why -- in Benghazi, Libya. The collection of phone records of Associated Press reporters by the Justice Department. Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency.


President Obama. Getty Images.

In the last six weeks -- the IRS story broke first on May 10 -- those handful of stories have driven every other narrative out of the news headlines. That's in spite of the Obama Administration's attempts to shift the focus back to the ongoing immigration debate, jobs and the economy and the U.S.' role in the world.

While you can debate the relative bad-ness of each of the stories for the White House, what's not debatable is that everyone in the administration from President Obama on down has been driven by the news rather than driving it over these last weeks. That inability of even the President of the United States to push his preferred message on a given day/week/month points to a fundamental new reality of politics: The bully pulpit just ain't what it used to be.

"There is no such thing as one storyline per news cycle -- there are a thousand news cycles in any given day, and not all of them can be completely controlled," said Stephanie Cutter, a senior adviser to President Obama's 2012 campaign. "But, you have to understand which of them are breaking through to average Americans, and which of them are just Washington fodder or blogosphere chatter."

To be clear: President Obama is still able to push an issue into the public consciousness if he really wants to. Tomorrow's speech on climate change is an example of that fact. But, a president is no longer able to ensure that his preferred daily narrative will be THE daily narrative or what the shelf life of it will be.

Take Obama's speech on counterterrorism which he delivered on May 23. The speech provided the clearest vision -- and rationale --  for his use of drones, the prison at Guantanamo Bay and any number of other subjects. But, despite the fact that the speech was viewed as a major landmark in his administration by those who follow counterterrorism policy closely, it quickly disappeared from the news.

Why is the bully pulpit less bully these days?  Lots and lots of reasons but three seem  most salient to us.

1. The ubiquity of news.  When Ronald Reagan was president -- or even when Bill Clinton was president -- the White House had to deal with the three major broadcast television networks and a handful of newspapers and wire services.  If the White House wanted a certain story pushed, they pushed it to those outlets and there was a damn good chance that they wind up with what they wanted on the evening news  and in the morning papers.

The splintering of the media into a million smaller shards makes that sort of agenda-driving incredibly difficult. The White House can still sit down with a handful of what it believes to be the most important news outlets in the country to push a message. But, if a blog happens to pop up a semi-controversial item on, say Michelle Obama, then the White House can say goodbye to their preferred message of the day.

Every White House needs to learn to roll with the punches that come with being the top elected official in the U.S.. But the punches are non-stop nowadays -- we tend to think of it as a pitching machine that just keeps firing fastballs at you -- and that makes it very, very difficult to roll with them and then pivot to your desired message.

2. The pace of news. Pre-Internet, a White House might have 12-24 hours to respond to the whereabouts of Edward Snowden and what it meant to U.S. foreign policy. Heck, it's uniquely possible that in the pre-Internet era, which wasn't all that long ago, the White House might be the only organization able to track Snowden's whereabouts. Now, his plane is tracked from the time it takes off to the time it lands; reporters are buying seats on a plane from Moscow to Cuba that Snowden was supposedly on.

Michael beschloss, the renowned historian, notes that when the Berlin Wall went up in August 1961President John F. Kennedy was on vacation and "went for a week without being successfully pressed to respond or explain why the U.S. had let it happen." Added Beschloss: "There is now an expectation that Presidents (or their aides) respond to developments almost immediately.  Thus as Lincoln would have put it, Presidents are very vulnerable to being overtaken by events."

Beschloss' point means that as president in today's age, you spend most of your time being reactive, rather than pro-active. And the bully pulpit tends to work far better as an offensive rhetorical weapon than a defensive one.

3. The polarization of the country. Of the 10 most polarized political years on record -- defined as the delta between Republicans and Democrats on the question of presidential job approval -- nine are sometime during the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. That's no coincidence.

Using the bully pulpit as a persuasion tool only works if there are people who can be persuaded.  At the moment, that's a shrinking constituency. "There are at least 40 percent of the voters in this country who don’t give a fig for a word [Obama] says, and the same is true of Bush 43 and Clinton," said Jan van Lohuizen, who handled polling for Bush.

Regardless of the reason(s) -- and we'd love to hear your reasons in the comments section below -- it's hard to argue with the idea that the bully pulpit has grown less powerful over the last decade and almost certainly will continue to diminish as a dominating message delivery system in the years to come.

How do you then succeed -- from a message perspective -- as president? Try to find order in the chaos, a narrative strand that ties a series of events together, and then push that message across every platform -- Twitter, You Tube, Flickr, newspapers, TV and anything else you can think of.

"What you have to do is ensure that multiple engagements support an overarching message," said Erik Smith, a veteran Democratic campaign operative. "A smart operation is able to drive unpredictable conflicts to a common message."

Easier said than done.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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