Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer has an insightful post up at CNN Opinion, “President’s Bully Pulpit Is Not What It Used to Be,” which should be of interest to political junkies across the left-right spectrum. As President Obama takes to the bully pulpit today to win public support for his debt ceiling and budget plans, Zelizer provides an excellent mini-history of the use of the bully pulpit and then explains its limitations in 2011:
…The current structure of the media has emasculated the bully pulpit. Regardless of how good a president is on the stump, it is almost impossible for him to command public attention, because there is no singular “media” to speak of. Instead, Americans receive their media through countless television stations and websites.
During the 1960s, when Presidents Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon spoke, the choice was to hear them or turn off the television and radio. Today, if President Obama wanted to conduct a fireside chat, it is doubtful that many people would be listening.
With the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the media were also able to shed the appearance of neutrality and objectivity. Every perspective did not have to receive equal time. On many television and radio stations, objective reporters have been replaced with openly partisan commentators. Any presidential message is quickly surrounded by polemical instant commentary that diminishes the power of what he says.
Making matters worse, on the Internet, presidents can’t even fully control the time they have as they must compete with live blogs and video commentary as they try to share their message. Even within most households, the era of the single family television is gone. Now in many middle-class families everyone has their own media and is watching their own thing.
Zelizer may be overstating his case a bit — free live television time is nothing to be sniffed at, since most people still get their political information from TV. But there is no question that Zelizer is right about the multiplicity of options diluting the bully pulpit in recent decades. Nonetheless, a president who learns how to leverage multimedia tools to project a single message will gain an edge unavailable to his predecessors.