A bully pulpit is a public office or position of authority that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter.
In theory, the expression could refer to any position of authority. In practice, it is usually used to describe the presidency.
Origin of “Bully Pulpit”
The phrase bully pulpit is attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt, who exclaimed the words in response to critics of his leadership style.
Roosevelt said: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit” as he wrote an address to Congress.
Roosevelt often used the adjective “bully” to describe an event or action that was good or entertaining. The noun pulpit refers to a raised stand used for readings during religious ceremonies.
The bully pulpit in Roosevelt’s mind wasn’t about pummeling legislators with presidential authority; rather, he believed the president could encourage the public to push their legislators on behalf of his agenda.
Roosevelt, an avid reader and a prolific writer, coined an enduring phrase that would act as a litmus test for future presidents.
The Republican president was a more activist president than fallen successor William McKinley.
Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. He intervened in a Pennsylvania coal strike and used executive orders to protect natural resources.
Roosevelt remained a popular American figure beyond the end of his time as president with his name invoked during the 1916 and 1920 Republican nominating conventions.
Of course, Theodore Roosevelt was not the first president to use his position as a means of lecturing the American people.
Abraham Lincoln was using a bully pulpit when he addressed the nation after the Civil War, urging the American people to move forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Public evaluations of the presidency include how officeholders have used the bully pulpit to promote their values and policies.
As Robert Schlesinger has noted, the bully pulpit has magnified as communications methods reach deeper into American life.
The first presidential radio address was given by Warren Harding but Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt showed how the radio could engage the public. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chat was a use of the bully pulpit.
Dwight Eisenhower was noted for staying clear of the bully pulpit, which contributed to his broad popularity over two terms in office.
Jimmy Carter has been celebrated for using the fame of a former president to help domestic and international humanitarian organizations.
Donald Trump’s use of Twitter and rallies show modern applications of the bully pulpit concept.
Uses of “Bully Pulpit” in a sentence
- Many argue that President Roosevelt redefined the use of the bully pulpit, utilizing it to garner public support for his New Deal policies through fireside chats and impassioned speeches.
- Critics suggest that the bully pulpit can be misused, as it offers a leader the unfiltered capacity to sway public opinion, sometimes bypassing factual scrutiny and the legislative process.
- Modern presidents have extended the concept of the bully pulpit into the digital realm, using social media platforms to directly address the electorate and push their policy agendas.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.