Beware Condemning Barack Obama For a Low Bully Pulpit Profile

Don't be too quick to condemn Obama's use of the bully pulpit.

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Peppered with complaints about his relative silence and flagging leadership, the president urges his friends and allies to be patient. They are understandably skittish: His low profile is underscored by unceasing criticism from his political opponents and even broadcast commentators. His supporters wonder what happened to the politician who had used new technology to communicate with the American people.

Barack Obama in 2011, assailed by friends and foes alike for quiescence in the face of—take your pick—the looming budget battle, disaster in Japan, or upheavals in the Mideast and Midwest? No. Try Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. With Father Coughlin and others railing on the radio and in Congress during a period of slow motion on his agenda, Roosevelt was besieged by nervous allies wondering why he wasn't showing more vocal and forceful leadership. "My difficulty is a strange and weird sense known as 'public psychology,' " he wrote to one supporter. He explained to another his belief that the public cannot "be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale." [See the month's best editorial cartoons.]

FDR had mastered what his cousin Teddy had termed the "bully pulpit," not simply through great speeches, but through an understanding of that platform's limitations. Overexposure can diminish its power as the president's voice becomes one of many, so it is most effective when used judiciously. Consider Roosevelt's famous fireside chats. Popular imagination sees them as something like the modern weekly radio address. In fact, he never gave more than four in a year.

Another president who understood the limitations of the bully pulpit was John F. Kennedy. During his brief tenure too, allies complained of his failure to speak often or forcefully enough on key issues, especially civil rights.

"The nation will listen only if it is a moment of great urgency," he once said. He liked to quote Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, where in response to Owen Glendower's boast that he can "call spirits from the vasty deep," Hotspur replies: "Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?" Kennedy understood that the power of a president's speech is constrained, or augmented, by context. To the extent his audience is primed for a message, it resonates, multiplying the power of that address. The most effective presidents find a leadership balance where they are far enough in front of public opinion to lead it, but not so far as to lose it.

JFK and FDR had another important commonality: They were skilled communicators at times of communication revolution. FDR came into office just as most U.S. households first had radio receivers. He wasn't the first president to deal with this new mass medium, but he was the first to understand the opportunity it provided to fundamentally change the way presidents engaged with voters.

So too Kennedy was not the first president to deal with television, but he was the first to figure out what kind of new communications opportunities it afforded. He used weekly televised news conferences, the first such presidential appearances to be broadcast. Columnist James Reston warned the president that it was "the goofiest idea since the hula hoop," but Kennedy relished the opportunity to connect directly with the voters. And the news conferences allowed him to flash his most winning qualities: his smarts, his broad grasp of facts and data, and of course his ironic wit. Kennedy referred to these conferences as "the 6 o'clock comedy hour." But more seriously, he said, "We couldn't survive without them."

Which brings us back to Obama, another eloquent Democrat taking criticism for inexpertly using (or failing to use) the bully pulpit. Poor Obama has gotten it coming and going. When he first took office he was seemingly everywhere at once, and widely panned as being overexposed. This lurching approach to public communications is due at least in part to the fact that Obama, like his predecessors, is trying to govern at a time of communication transformation. In fact he is arguably dealing with a double revolution, involving both the fracturing of the old mass media (presidents can no longer count on the television audience being easily captured on just three networks) and the rise of the new social media. At first Obama and his team tried to flood the zone; now they seem to have adopted a more classical view that the presidential voice is a resource to be husbanded. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]