The Bully Pulpit: How Presidents Lead the Nation (and How Trump Blew It)

It is a sad thing for the current occupant of the White House, and for whatever legacy he may leave to posterity, that the term “bully pulpit” has nothing to do with the sort of bullying at which he excels. If only making fun of people, giving them mean nicknames, and rousing supporters to hate one’s enemies constituted a useful presidential skill — then we might have to think twice before calling Donald Trump’s presidency an abject failure.

Unfortunately, though, when Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “bully pulpit,” he was not thinking of that kind of bullying. He meant it as an adjective. “Bully for England” meant “good for England.” A “bully chap” was a fine fellow. And a “bully pulpit” was a good platform, as in neat, nifty, swell, the bee's knees, the cat’s pajamas — that sort of thing.

What Roosevelt realized was that the President of the United States spoke from a unique position — not that of a monarch, since the president was elected by the people. But not that of an ordinary citizen either. Presidents command crowds. People care what they have to say. Newspapers print it, television stations broadcast it, bloggers blog about it. In Roosevelt’s day, as in our own, anything a president says will be listened to and given special attention just by the fact that the president is saying it.

Roosevelt also recognized that the opportunity to use this bully pulpit was perhaps the greatest power that American presidents have. When they are campaigning, Presidents often talk about the laws and programs they will pass. But presidents don’t actually make laws. That is the job of Congress. The greatest influence that presidents have over legislation lies in their ability to persuade members of Congress to pass certain laws, or to persuade the public to pressure their Senators and Representative until they are willing to do so.

The President’s power to persuade is important because laws are very blunt instruments for doing anything that matters. Laws can constrain people’s behavior, but presidential persuasion can inspire and comfort people, bring them together, build communities, and change society from the inside out. When John F. Kennedy challenged America to put a person on the moon by the end of the 1960s, he was not creating a policy; he was inspiring a vision. And when Dwight Eisenhower went on TV to explain why he generalized the National Guard to enforce the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision, he was appealing — as Abraham Lincoln did a hundred years earlier — to the better angels of our nature.

The bully pulpit is especially important in times of great crisis. Our greatest presidents have been the ones who had great crises to shine in —Washington and the Revolution, Lincoln and the Civil War, FDR and the Great Depression. James Monroe and William McKinley were perfectly serviceable executives, but they presided over relatively good times. Their mettle was never put to the test by a great national upheaval, so they never rose above the second rank. James Buchannan, Andrew Johnson, and Herbert Hoover, on the other hand, are counted among our worst presidents because they couldn’t rise to the crises that fate handed them.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, the current president of the United States. Unlike many recent presidents, Trump had the opportunity to respond to a crisis the way that great presidents must. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most serious public health crises in our nation’s history, and it has sparked one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression. There is nothing that a president could have done about the virus coming to America, but there are a lot of things that he could have done to control its impact on the lives and livelihoods of the people.

Most of these things, though, would have involved using the bully pulpit to inspire the nation and challenge us to rise to our better selves. Imagine what might have happened if, back in February, the President had gone on TV and said something like this:

For most people, COVID-19 is not fatal. Most people who are infected with the virus experience symptoms similar to the flu, and most cases end with full recovery. The United States has some of the best public health professionals in the world, and they are doing everything they can to identify cases and contain the spread of this disease.

However, the virus can be very dangerous for some people. Older adults and those with weak immune systems are disproportionally at risk. If the coronavirus is not contained, it will spread in the United States the way that it has already spread in other countries, and many of the most vulnerable people in our society will suffer the most.

By taking some very small precautionary steps, howevert, we can work together to slows this outbreak down, contain its effects, and give our public health officials the time that they need to understand what we are up against and figure out how to beat it. But this will only work if we all take these steps, even if there is no evidence of an outbreak in our immediate vicinity.

At times like this, we must come together as Americans and protect each other from the ravages of this new disease. If we use this outbreak as a reason to blame each other, or to dig deeper into our silos and echo chambers, the situation will get worse. This is a public health emergency that we must greet with an outpouring of public virtue.

Viruses are not anybody’s fault, and they do not work for one side and against another. This is not an election issue; it is an American issue and a human issue. We can do this together. We cannot do it alone.

A speech like this, made at the outset, might have turned the virus into something that we beat together as Americans — and not as a reason to divide further into ideological categories. There was no reason for the President to turn a national emergency into a campaign attack. He did not have to label the virus a hoax, or encourage his supporters to protest against “Democrat governors” when they tried to implement public health measures. He did not have to undermine our public health apparatus and cause people to doubt guidelines intended to keep us safe.

And even now, as we experience a resurgence in cases and, now, in deaths, the President could do more than any other person in the country to save lives and contain the disease by wearing face coverings whenever he is in public and urging everyone in the nation to do the same. Masking prevents the spread of viruses best when people want to wear them — when they want to promote public health because that is the sort of thing that Americans do. The fact that we are now debating compulsory mask ordinances across the nation demonstrates that we have already lost the battle for hearts and minds, which the stage at which presidential persuasion matters the most.

Donald Trump has failed miserably to use his bully pulpit because he has continually chosen to use his pulpit to be a bully. This is why he alone, of nearly all of the leaders in the world, has seen his approval ratings plummet during the worst part of the pandemic. In a crisis, people need leaders who can comfort and inspire them, bring them together, and make the enemy — as microscopic as it may be — seem insignificant by comparison to the might of a great nation united. The Coronavirus gave Donald Trump the opportunity to be a Lincoln, and he has instead used it as an opportunity to nudge James Buchannan and Andrew Johnson out of last place in the power rankings of American presidents.

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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