The Bully Pulpit: Benefits and Risks

Obama is everywhere these days. But is he running the risk of overexposure?

So far, it is fair to say that Obama firmly believes the presidential bully pulpit is the way to go. He has already scheduled a second primetime press conference for this week and, given his weekly radio and Internet addresses, we can safely assume media exposure is not a concern to him. The question is, how long can this go on? Is he not running the risk of overexposure?

Theodore Roosevelt was the first to describe the presidency as a “bully pulpit.” The White House, he figured, provided an ideal platform for speaking directly to voters and above the heads of those in Congress. The occupant of the Oval Office is at the center of government and has particularly easy access to the media, which can be used to cajole invitations, advance policy and defend actions. Successors like FDR, JFK, and Ronald Reagan were able to push the bully pulpit far beyond what Theodore Roosevelt imagined.

With Obama, the presidential bully pulpit has expanded again. Already labeled the Internet President, Obama is evidently intent on getting out of the Washington “bubble” to sell his policies directly to the American public. His regular use of the bully pulpit since the inauguration has kept his personal approval ratings high, above even the levels of support his policies enjoy.

If you are his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, or his principal advisor, David Axelrod, you are tempted to use your best communicator. Obama is smart, charismatic, personally charming and has a strong likeability factor. But what happens when the economy remains in recession, unemployment rises to 10 per cent, foreclosures increase, and objectionable events such as the AIG bonuses occur?

As we speak, the Obama administration in the media is essentially Obama. There are very few faces who have succeeded in advancing the White House agenda. Vice President Joe Biden has done his job, but he is not emerging as a dominant figure. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a great choice, but outside of her travels, we hardly hear about her. The only secretary who is in the news is Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. But with the controversy surrounding the AIG bonuses, Geithner has become the focus of unwanted attention, and he must now contend with lukewarm support from key Democrats and a group of Republicans that can smell blood.

It has not helped that Geithner had a rough confirmation process, during which he had to defend his behavior regarding a personal tax matter. One should always be worried when the boss must give an open vote of confidence to an employee in trouble, which is what Obama did with Geithner on 60 Minutes this past Sunday.

The risk for Obama is that his administration may soon run out of favour if the economy fails to improve. Obama is currently facing some opposition from within his own party regarding the projected $3.4 trillion budget. And while Geithner is undoubtedly talented, his communication skills have been found wanting. This only creates more pressure on the president to compensate, with mixed results, as we saw last week. The bully pulpit can soon become the venue for anger, protest, and demonstrations. What happens then?

It is obvious that America has a new type of politician in the White House. He has stated that he does not want to leave the problems he inherited for future presidents. This kind of commitment is welcome. Obama understands the media and popular culture in ways that make him different. Clearly, he believes the benefits of the bully pulpit outweigh the inherent risks. Time, however, will tell if he is right.

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