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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Beyond the Bully Pulpit: Deploying Other Progressive Assets For a Jobs Effort

This item is a guest post by Ralph Whitehead, Professor of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts and a long-time contributor to discussions of progressive politics.
What James Vega says about the bully pulpit as a medium is certainly correct and worth saying. Much of his memo seems to define the bully pulpit too narrowly, as if it consists merely of a single presidential speech or set of remarks or a brief series of speeches on a single subject. Nevertheless, even if we replace this definition with one that is modestly broader and can include multiple appearances to illustrate a common theme, his case still holds.
Although a President’s words can somewhat alter the level of popular support for some policy objectives, they can’t reliably alter it a great deal for every policy objective. As a medium, the President’s voice is not all-powerful. This holds for President Obama, too, no matter how eloquent he has been in the past or will be in the future. So it isn’t true that the bully pulpit per se, if President Obama would only use it, would be the deciding factor in any of a wide range of policy debates. To the extent that Democratic partisans have called on President Obama to use the bully pulpit because they believe that he will be able to use it to this effect, they are wrong. (Also, as Vega might have said of the Republicans, they don’t control the bully pulpit — but recently they have still been able to accomplish a lot of what they have wanted to accomplish.)
However, three sections of the memo deal not only with the matter of the bully pulpit but also with various aspects of the matter of jobs. These sections appear as a number of Democrats are urging the President in effect to launch an effort to put a large number of Americans back to work by first impelling perhaps 30 House Republicans to take the extreme step of voting for a plan to fund public works projects. I worry that Vega’s cautions against the effectiveness of the bully pulpit will be read as cautions also against the effectiveness of such an effort and thus as cautions against the President and the Democrats embarking on such an effort in the first place. If they are read this way, then I want to make the case that they shouldn’t be.
To move 30 House Republicans is obviously a tall order. Democrats won’t be able to do this by mobilizing merely our partisan base in each of those 30 districts. We will also have to address voters who stand outside of our base. Also, it won’t be enough for us merely to persuade such voters to accept the creation of a jobs initiative that would originate in the unpopular federal government. We will also have to get them to support our plan, and to do it actively enough to be willing to urge their respective House members to vote for it. Given what Vega tells us about the bully pulpit, this order is clearly too tall to be filled by just a series of speeches and appearances by the President. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that attempting such an effort must be a fool’s errand.
Some of the proponents of such an effort know how tall an order it is. Also, though they definitely imagine that a heavy use of the voice and presence of the President would be a necessary part of what it would take for such an effort to be successful, they don’t assume that it would be sufficient. What they have in mind for it certainly includes use of the bully pulpit, But it would have to include other assets as well.
For one thing, apart from the role of the President and many surrogates, this effort would include the elements of any serious grassroots lobbying campaign. Moreover, the role of just the President himself wouldn’t rely only on his own voice. He would also begin to go into each congressional districts and use his stature to help gain attention for the voices of people there who are unemployed or underemployed. Given the nature of those districts, a lot of these people are white. Some hold four-year degrees. A lot of others don’t. Literally and figuratively, he would hand his microphone over to them, so that they can describe their own situations. If they wish, they could then, as the case might be, speak for or against the Democratic plan to create public works jobs. As they did so, they could symbolically address their words to their respective members of the House.
If the President is lucky, opponents of the bill would picket his appearances. If so, their actions would constitute large in-kind contributions to his re-election campaign. They would have to report them to the FEC. So his aides should bring along the proper reporting forms and pass them out. Also, the President’s work at the level of individual congressional districts wouldn’t prevent him from appearing at events of national significance. If a job fair attracts 10,000 job-seekers and national media attention, the President should feel free to attend and see if he can persuade some of the job seekers to devote some of their time to supporting the effort to pass a jobs bill.
In such an effort, the prime source of its appeal to voters, both in the target districts and across the country, wouldn’t have to be the bully pulpit. After all, it isn’t supposed to be. The prime source of its appeal is the appeal that a steady paycheck has for people who need one and, for people who don’t, it is the appeal of the benefits of the ripple effects of the decline in the number of their friends and neighbors who need a job.

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