Why Trump might find the bully pul­pit isn’t what it used to be.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY JENA MCGRE­GOR jena.mcgre­gor@wash­post.com

As the first ma­jor piece of leg­is­la­tion dur­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s short ten­ure starts mak­ing its way through Congress, po­lit­i­cal ob­servers and re­porters are again buzzing about how Trump will use his “bully pul­pit” to push through Repub­li­cans’ ef­fort to re­peal and re­place for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama’s sig­na­ture health care law.

The phrase, coined by Theodore Roo­sevelt and used to sig­nal the power of the pres­i­dency to shape pub­lic opin­ion, seems to be get­ting ex­tra at­ten­tion in the early weeks of the Trump era. Not only does Trump have a mas­sive so­cial­me­dia fol­low­ing and a fond­ness for cam­paign-style ral­lies — which he’s ex­pected to use to sell the re­peal-and-re­place leg­is­la­tion to sup­port­ers in com­ing weeks — but his use of so­cial me­dia to brow­beat in­di­vid­ual com­pa­nies has some draw­ing par­al­lels to his cen­tury-ago pre­de­ces­sor.

But the orig­i­nal mean­ing of the phrase, ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans, is of­ten mis­un­der­stood, and the “bully pul­pit” may not be as pow­er­ful as it once was, or even seems. And while it may in­vite some com­par­isons be­tween the 26th and 45th pres­i­dents — both brash, wealthy New York­ers who had dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ships with their par­ties’ es­tab­lish­ment — the sim­i­lar­i­ties in their lead­er­ship are in other ways quite lim­ited, his­to­ri­ans say.

In the early 20th cen­tury, “bully” had an en­tirely dif­fer­ent mean­ing, one that had noth­ing to do with throw­ing one’s weight around. “‘Bully’ just meant some­thing that was re­ally good, re­ally pos­i­tive,” said H.W. Brands, a his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin who has writ­ten books about many pres­i­dents, in­clud­ing one of Roo­sevelt. “He didn’t use it to threaten peo­ple with ret­ri­bu­tion. He didn’t prom­ise to un­der­take reprisal against peo­ple who op­pose him. Roo­sevelt would say ‘that was a bully good base­ball game’ in very much the same way.”

Mean­while, Roo­sevelt’s use of the phrase “bully pul­pit” wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily about strong-arm­ing law­mak­ers in Congress, but shap­ing pub­lic opin­ion by speak­ing di­rectly to the Amer­i­can peo­ple who’d pres­sure law­mak­ers in­stead.

“When Roo­sevelt called the pres­i­dency the ‘bully pul­pit’ he meant it was a re­ally good plat­form from which to reach the peo­ple,” said Ni­cole Hem­mer, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of pres­i­den­tial stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia’s Miller Cen­ter. “It’s been rein­ter­preted in many ways as us­ing pub­lic ap­pear­ances as a cud­gel to make other peo­ple do your will.”

Trump, of course, has found his own plat­form for speak­ing di­rectly to the peo­ple, one that op­er­ates in 140 char­ac­ters. Like other pres­i­dents who have mas­tered new forms of me­dia — Roo­sevelt with mass cir­cu­la­tion news­pa­pers, Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt with ra­dio, and Ron­ald Rea­gan with tele­vi­sion — Trump has used so­cial me­dia to speak di­rectly with the pub­lic, or at least with his sup­port­ers.

That con­cept was new in Roo­sevelt’s era, even if it isn’t now. “Be­fore Roo­sevelt, pres­i­dents, with some ex­cep­tions, sort of faded into the back­ground,” Hem­mer said. “Start­ing with Roo­sevelt you get this mod­ern pres­i­dency where the pres­i­dent and his agenda come to de­fine the pol­i­tics of the time.”

In started partly out of ne­ces­sity. Roo­sevelt, a pro­gres­sive, was “deeply dis­trusted by the lead­ers of the Repub­li­can party,” Brands said, and found him­self at odds with his party’s lead­er­ship in Congress after sud­denly be­com­ing pres­i­dent fol­low­ing Wil­liam McKin­ley’s as­sas­si­na­tion in 1901. “He used to say any­thing the Con­sti­tu­tion did not for­bid him from do­ing, he thought was fair game,” Brands said. “He would put heat on the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship by go­ing over their heads and speak­ing di­rectly to the pub­lic.”

Many will hear echoes of the cur­rent Repub­li­can pres­i­dent and his party in that — and many have drawn par­al­lels be­tween the two pres­i­dents, from their big per­son­al­i­ties and dis­tinc­tive phys­i­cal traits to their pop­ulist ap­peal and fond­ness for ex­ec­u­tive power. But there are also many, many dif­fer­ences, both in sub­stance — Roo­sevelt be­lieved in gov­ern­ment as a force for pub­lic good and more reg­u­la­tion of big busi­ness, while Trump’s chief strate­gist has vowed to fight for the “de­con­struc­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tive state” — and in style.

Roo­sevelt, said Brands, was “thor­oughly versed in the bills he was try­ing to pro­mote” and “quite spe­cific in ex­plain­ing what he wanted to do,” aid­ing him in shap­ing opin­ion. A pro­gres­sive at the far left wing of his party, he was also adept at find­ing the mid­dle ground. Trump, mean­while, has “not laid out in any kind of de­tail what he wants to see in terms of re­peal and re­place­ment of the Af­ford­able Care Act, in terms of the in­fra­struc­ture project, or tax re­form,” Brands says. “It prob­a­bly re­flects Trump’s lesser com­mand of the pol­icy, but also Trump is not a gifted speaker.” Roo­sevelt, mean­while, was a dis­ci­plined com­mu­ni­ca­tor, skilled at stay­ing on mes­sage, even after fa­mously be­ing shot.

How much the “bully pul­pit” re­ally aids a pres­i­dent when it comes to pass­ing leg­is­la­tion has come un­der ques­tion in more re­cent years. Ge­orge Ed­wards, a pro­fes­sor at Texas A&M Univer­sity who wrote On Deaf Ears: The Lim­its of the Bully Pul­pit, has ques­tioned the in­flu­ence of pres­i­den­tial per­sua­sion in em­pir­i­cal stud­ies, telling the New Yorker in 2012 that Franklin Roo­sevelt “gave only two or three fire­side chats a year, and rarely did he fo­cus them on leg­is­la­tion un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in Congress.”

Mean­while, in a hy­per-po­lar­ized en­vi­ron­ment, the power to per­suade may mat­ter much less than the ad­van­tage Trump al­ready has: a ma­jor­ity in Congress. And it’s be­come harder for pres­i­dents, no mat­ter how many Twit­ter fol­low­ers they may have, to set the pub­lic agenda in the way they did be­fore the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia.

Trump may use Twit­ter to set the topic of the day, Hem­mer said. “But his abil­ity to de­fine and shape and con­trol that topic — which is the ul­ti­mate effectiveness of the bully pul­pit — he re­ally doesn’t have that. Whether that’s be­cause he doesn’t have the dis­ci­pline or be­cause no one can con­trol the mes­sage in this kind of frag­mented me­dia en­vi­ron­ment, I’m not sure. But he doesn’t seem to have the abil­ity to re­ally bring it home.”


“Bully pul­pit” used to sig­nal the power of the pres­i­dency to shape pub­lic opin­ion, but what will that mean mov­ing for­ward?

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