How Powerful Is The Bully Pulpit?

by Patrick Appel

Jonathan Bernstein recently argued that Obama should talk more about fighting climate change. Digby is puzzled:

I had thought the bully pulpit is not only useless, but often counter-productive, so this is a surprise to me. Ezra Klein explained it to us all in this New Yorker piece from 2012, wherein he outlined all the political science numbers-crunching that proves public opinion is fairly irrelevant to public policy and presidential rhetoric even more so. Indeed, the thesis says that while the president coming out publicly for a particular policy may be able to harden his own troops’ resolve from time to time, he also hardens the opposition against him, so government basically can only be effective through the use of backroom deals and inside the beltway politicking

Bernstein’s response:

[A]s far as I understand it, the data we have on public opinion and the bully pulpit are mainly about short-term effects, and especially the (non-) effects of attempting to move Congress on specific legislation by changing public opinion. I don’t think we know much, if anything (and I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong) about long-term effects, if any. I mean, we know that Ronald Reagan didn’t make US voters more conservative during his presidency…but I don’t think we know anything about what, if any, long-term effects he might have had either on specific issues or ideology in general — including effects concentrated within conservatives. Or, to put it the other way: we could have something here similar to campaign effects in which strong professional electioneering tends to cancel out; if one side saw the minimal effects results and decided to not campaign at all, we’re fairly certain that it would create a very large effect. If Democratic presidents preach liberal ideals it might not change any minds, but if they don’t, it might fail to “educate” a generation of Democratic activists.