The Decline of the 140 Character Bully Pulpit

Since President Theodore Roosevelt first coined the expression in 1904, the bully pulpit has been a staple concept in the American presidency. In brief, the term originates from an antiquated use of the word “bully” which is an exclamation of something that is awesome or excellent, and pulpit describing a speaker’s podium. Roosevelt used the word to describe the idea that when the president speaks, he/she has the attention and ears of the American people. The power of the bully pulpit isn’t an explicit power, as it’s not enumerated in the Constitution. Rather it’s a soft power that the president has held throughout the 20th and even into the 21st centuries. The president can use the bully pulpit to address the concerns of the American people, place pressure on Congress to vote a particular way, and pass his agenda.

While the idea of the presidential bully pulpit has been around for over one hundred years, the methods of presidential access to the pulpit, along with its efficacy, has changed. Most notably, FDR addressed the American public through his “Fireside Chats” over the radio. In his thirty radio addresses to the American public, FDR attempted to quell economic anxieties by discussing his new policy proposals and current initiatives to aid Americans. As technology developed, presidents like JFK used television to address the American people, and the falling costs of air travel allowed for post-war presidents to have easier access to the American people.

While presidents since Roosevelt should have an easier time addressing the public, this has not been the case. In fact, until Watergate and the rise of woes of corruption in government, the president had relatively easy access to the media. Post-Watergate, the president has had a tougher time addressing the public all at once. Furthermore, the public seems to be less interested in what the president has to say relative to other events. In this respect, the president gets fewer viewers on average than the Super Bowl. This year, there were over double the amount of people who tuned into the Super Bowl that watched President Trump’s address to Congress on March 1, 2017. Even in the strongest cases, the American public is paying less attention the president.

[The] public is reminded of the president’s failure to address and fix key issues every time he speaks.

In addition Kara Alaimo of The Atlantic argues that we have seen an overall decline in the power of the bully pulpit. She cites the inability of recent presidents to communicate directly with the American public in conjunction with the static nature of the public’s political opinion. In addition, based on data from Rasmussen Reports she found that public appearances actually are correlated with a decrease in support. This is most likely because public is reminded of the president’s failure to address and fix key issues every time he speaks.

The most notable change in the bully pulpit is the use of Twitter to communicate President Trump’s “message.” In 140 characters or less, the president is able to communicate “directly” to the American people. In turn, this solves the first issue faced by Alaimo’s argument, as President Trump has easy access to the ears (or should I say eyes) of the American populace. Even if a person does not have Twitter, President Trump’s tweets are often cited on major networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

Most people can agree that President Trump has capitalized on the power of the mass communication and social media, similarly to that of FDR or JFK. However, President Trump has recently run into an issue regarding his credibility. Even his most fervor supporters in corporate America and Wall Street are growing weary of his inability to do much more than tweet in his first fifty days in office. From November 8, 2016 until March 21, 2017, the market has grown tremendously on two factors: a growing economy and the promise of corporate tax cuts and business-friendly deregulation. However, President Trump’s inability to garner support from Republicans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act has led to investors losing faith in President Trump.

The market has been known to overreact to political fears (see Brexit); however, this may be the start of a larger trend. President Trump is at risk of losing credibility amongst Republicans due to his outlandish allegations of President Obama wiretapping Trump Tower during the election, along with his inability to adequately unite Congressional Republicans. President Trump is losing support from his own government agencies, Congressional Republicans, and his supporters.

President Trump hit the metaphorical gold mine with Twitter. Twitter provided the president with a platform to reach a greater dearth of people than any president before him. However, using Twitter, as a bully pulpit also projects his failings. His unrestricted access to 140 characters allows him to address the public at any point of the day. Yet, his tweets don’t make much of a difference if people stop listening.

What happens if no one cares when the president speaks?

As noted before, there is a decline in the power and impact of the bully pulpit. President Trump, with his outlandish comments and promises to key supporters, has been an anomaly in the presidential sphere. However, as his term continues, his fiery tweets will perpetuate the further decline of his credibility, along with the number of people that will listen and care when he talks. By exhausting his Twitter, President Trump is at risk of euthanizing his bully pulpit. This leaves us with this question: what happens if no one cares when the president speaks?

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