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.
Origins and History
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. 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.
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. Harry Truman gave the first presidential speech on television but Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy showed the medium’s potential. Trump’s frequent use of social media follows earlier efforts by George W. Bush and Barack Obama to harness the Internet for bully pulpit purposes.
Social media has made it easier than ever for presidents to directly address the American people. Analysts have pointed out that President Donald Trump often uses his Twitter account as a kind of digital bully pulpit. The president took to Twitter to air his views during the impeachment hearings, to the dismay of many pundits. He also uses Twitter to discuss foreign policy and defense spending, among other issues. The president has also used Twitter to announce new policy initiatives and to express his opinions of other public figures.
Washington Post (July 2, 2017): “With the Republican push to revamp the Affordable Care Act stalled again, even some allies of President Trump question whether he has effectively used the bully pulpit afforded by his office and are increasingly frustrated by distractions of his own making.”
Forbes (January 19, 2017): “Properly exercised, the bully pulpit should reflect the leader’s personality, strengthening a natural and genuine extension of the leader’s communications relationship with followers.”
The Atlantic (April 2013): “The people agreed with Obama that the rich should pay more in taxes, agreed with Reagan that everybody should get a tax cut, and agreed with Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security. These presidents didn’t need to move the needle on these issues; all they had to do was marshal support. But the same three presidents, using the same bully-pulpit tactics, failed to win over the people – and the lawmakers – on other fronts.”