The decline of the bully pulpit

Why haven’t modern presidents had more success harnessing the bully pulpit to achieve their goals? First, the president rarely speaks directly to the American people. Edwards says that the only circumstances in which the president is likely to do so are during the State of the Union address and in the midst of scandals or military actions. Presidents used to be able to command network television coverage when they wished to address the American people, but, according to Edwards, that changed after a “network rebellion” began in the 1970s. Since then, the White House has faced an uphill battle in convincing networks to interrupt programming. As a result, rather than hearing from the president directly, the American people often come to learn about his messages through the filter of journalists. Of course, the president lacks the ability to control the tone and content of such coverage. As the journalist Sebastian Mallaby has argued, “the bully pulpit has been drowned out by bullying pundits.”

The rise in punditry has coincided with heightened investigation into— and criticism of—presidential claims. While through the 1960s many reporters saw their jobs as being to convey the words of the president, the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War ushered in a new era of media scrutiny. Presidential statements no longer go uncontested; rather, a cadre of political and investigative journalists intensively question, fact-check, and challenge presidential communications. Gone are the days when reporters simply turned their heads, like they did when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign train stopped so that he could visit his mistress Lucy Mercer in Allamuchy, New Jersey.