A Prisoner of the Bully Pulpit Breaks Free

Photomontage of Theodore Roosevelt (Courtesy of Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons)


Theodore Roosevelt, though a fine president in many ways, left behind one baleful legacy: the idea of the presidency as a ‘bully pulpit,’ by which he meant a superb vantage from which to preach to others about how the nation should be.  When you hear presidential candidates speaking confidently of the miraculous feats that will follow from their being elected, it’s the misleading cadences of a bully-pulpit preacher you’re hearing.


To an extent difficult for us to appreciate today, Roosevelt’s conception of the president as an active visionary was revolutionary, departing in significant ways from the executive role the Constitution laid out.  Our scheme of government assigns the president a few plain duties, which, given the size and scope of the government and its role in the world, constitute a staggering burden.  In addition to serving as the symbolic and ceremonial head of the nation, the president executes the laws, conducts foreign policy, commands the armed forces.  Presidents often function as party leaders, but their constitutional function is essentially one of interdependence, for a president cannot make a law, placing every president in that regard very much at the mercy of Congress.


During the first century of the nation’s life, presidents grappled with this limitation in various ways, but Teddy was the first to dare to act as though it didn’t exist.  He was determined to make the president the determining force in all things.  Like Satan—the most powerful angel in Milton’s celestial firmament—, he chafed at playing second fiddle; he longed to be God.  Suiting actions to words, Roosevelt broke the mold, becoming a media-oriented president intent on using his considerable intellect and celebrity to reshape the nation and govern Congress.  Initiative pulsated from the White House.  It was all very thrilling.  Moreover, it kept Roosevelt constantly in the spotlight, which was something he liked.


Since then, Roosevelt’s conception of the presidency has become our conception, too.  In what is a sad distortion of the Founders’ vision, we expect the president—a single person—to do the work that Congress should be doing.  This, in turn, leads to a confusion about where responsibility lies.  The American people spend more and more time agonizing over presidential choice, more and more time trying to decide which campaign promises and bold visions please them more.


It was clear from the start that Barack Obama sought to be an activist president in the Rooseveltian vein.  His entire campaign the first time around was based on the premise that he could “change Washington,” reorganize the business of politics, and define a new political epoch singlehandedly.  For much of his first term, he seemed at odds with the presidential role, chafing at its limitations and behaving as though his ability to extract specific laws from Congress was the sole yardstick later generations would measure him by.

Influencing Congress became his preoccupation.  Whether the issue was health care or the debt ceiling, President Obama spent much of his first term lecturing Congress and the public—chiding and exhorting the nation to embrace his vision for us.  His love of showing his mettle prompted him to become over-involved in fruitless wrangles whose results were properly the responsibility of a weak and recalcitrant Congress.  The “victories” so gained were costly indeed: witness a health-care bill ahead of its time that, regardless of its merits, heightened partisan rancor and left much of the nation resentful and unpersuaded.


As recently as January, the president’s bully-pulpit predilections were on full display, when he chose to use the State of the Union address to tell Congress its business rather than report candidly on governmental progress.  Yet, between then and now, Obama has seen the light about an activist presidency, about what a dead-end it is, how it takes a certain set of conditions to achieve.  In the meantime, he has racked up a steady tally of gains, showing himself to be very able in directing foreign affairs and the military.  And he retains the support of a large part of the electorate, who value his honesty and intelligence and see him as persistent, prudent, and humane.


Which brings us to the president’s recent acceptance speech.  Some listeners were disappointed; others found the speech a bit desperate or weak.  We all noticed a difference.  The bully-pulpit fervor we’ve grown so accustomed to was missing.

Instead, the President re-articulated his fundamental role as ‘the people’s sovereign’—the keeper of the people’s interest, uniquely entrusted to embody and articulate their general sentiments and needs.  This emphasis on the president’s traditional role as the national symbol of the people’s rule enabled the President to remind his listeners of their primary role as citizens, in a system in which his power is ‘from the people.’


Lacking the glitz and razzmatazz of his earlier speeches, the president’s speech that night was pitched in a lower key.  Its high points were not remarkable for policy specifics, but for their embrace of a more constitutionally sound notion of the presidency, one focused on executing the will of the people and the astute exercise of presidential duty.  The speech’s most important moment came when Obama said, “I’m not a just candidate for the presidency.  I am the president,” a simple declaration that eloquently accounted for his changed tone.

For a sitting president who a year ago styled himself an underdog, this embrace of experience and authority marked a great leap toward political maturity.  Scaling back the high-flown rhetoric and grand visions of which he has been so fond, the president has raised his ambitions in another way: making a bid for greatness by renouncing a view of office that offers self-gratification now.

Regardless of the continuing deep divisions in Congress, the nation can repose confidence in the seasoned president we have now.  All in all, it was a moment I rejoiced to see: a prisoner of the bully pulpit breaking free.

President Obama delivering his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention, Sept 6, 2012 (Screen shot courtesy of WTTW Channel 11 Chicago)

Top image: “Five hundred different views of Theodore Roosevelt,” from this source.
Bottom image: Screen capture of PBS Newshour coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

2 responses

  1. A very well written and meaty article. . . .Interesting that you chose TR to compare and contrast with Obama. TR, despite all his popularity (am I correct?), was only a one-term President. Along with Jackson, he was a President who saw himself as having a “mandate” to govern. I don’t know how well he did with Congress. . . . Flash forward to Obama. I thought his acceptance speech cautious. He was “playing” to the peoples’ thoughts and wishes. It was political and had to be—he was/is a candidate and had to be careful——he could not claim a “bully pulpit” or a mandate. . . . I am curious, though, of all the Presidents the United States have had, why did you choose TR? Thanks for making me think some!!!

    • Hi Sam–
      Your comments touch on a lot of points I didn’t explain. Teddy Roosevelt is the starting point of this post because he was the first to employ a certain approach to the presidency. His predecessor was Wm McKinley, who was assassinated but who exemplified a more traditional approach to the presidency. McKinley was a strong president, but he was also a creature of his party. He was famous for his “front porch” campaign–meaning that he did nothing as a presidential nominee but sit on his porch, while other members of his party went out stumping for him and saw to it that he would be elected. He was the executive of decisions his party made jointly, of policies that originated in and were ironed out in Congress. This is a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but more or less true.

      Then along came Teddy, McKinley’s vice-president. He was very active in speaking out, in mediating conflicts, in campaigning, in trying to influence the outcome of every conflict and deliberation. When an anthracite strike occurred, paralyzing the nation, he summoned the parties to the White House and got them to agree. He took responsibility for EVERYTHING. We are used to this now, but, when Teddy started behaving this way, it was a novelty. He did successfully run for election on his own in 1904 and went out in 1908 on a tide of great popularity.

      TR established a new model of presidential behavior, of lecturing others and trying to inspire the rest of the nation and the government to see things his way. This is what many candidates and presidents have done consequently, but (as I tried to point out) the fact that our government is one of separated powers and interdependence means that this approach often doesn’t work out.

      Obama discovered this in his first term. For what means did he have to realize all the promises he made as a candidate? All these visions depended on his getting Congress to see things his way. The second time around, in my view, Obama is charting a more modest path that is more realistic and more Constitutionally sound. Meanwhile, Mr Romney is continuing to boast that he will undo legislation and make many other large changes in our direction which, if you think about it, presidents have a very limited power to do.

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to write in.
      Susan Barsy