Tuesday, March 30, 2021

There Is No National Bully Pulpit for Democrats

Following passage of the American Rescue Plan, Biden, Vice President Harris, and an array of cabinet secretaries will spend the next several months touring the country touting its provisions. But while that will garner some local press coverage, national media will ignore the whole thing because, as Dan Pfeiffer noted, "With each day, the passage of the American Rescue Plan fades further into the past, and more of the media moves onto the next crisis du jour."

In case you had any doubts about what Pfeiffer wrote, it was made clear during Biden's press conference last week. White House Correspondents were consumed with questions about the so-called "crisis" on our southern border, the filibuster, and whether or not Biden planned to run for re-election in 2024. Susan Glasser was shocked about what didn't come up.

There was not a single question, meanwhile, about the ongoing pandemic that for the past year has convulsed life as we know it and continues to claim an average of a thousand lives a day. How is this even possible during a once-in-a-century public-health crisis, the combating of which was the central theme of Biden’s campaign and remains the central promise of his Presidency? It’s hard not to see it as anything other than an epic and utterly avoidable press fail.

Why was that? Does the White House Press Corp have a right wing bias? Probably not. What they have is a bad news bias. As Pfeiffer wrote, "These outlets will always ignore what is going right in favor of what is going wrong." A savvy news consumer would recognize that Jennifer Palmieri nailed it with this tweet.

This is a perfect example of why the whole notion of a so-called "bully pulpit" for Democratic presidents no longer exists. It hasn't for quite a while. As Pfeiffer explained, that is not true for Republicans, who have spent decades building up a right-wing media network that consistently sells their message to the public. Here's an example of how that worked during Obama's presidency:

When Barack Obama was President, the Right Wing media covered the economy as if it was a disaster. They ignored positive news, trumped-up negative news, and just made a lot of stuff up. The moment Trump was elected, they began describing the economy as the greatest in American history even though the pace of job creation had slowed under Trump.

As we've seen with the issue of immigration, propaganda from right-wing media is oftentimes picked up by mainstream media and develops into a national narrative.

During Obama's presidency, left wing critics often accused him of failing to use the bully pulpit to press his agenda or tout his accomplishments. But the truth is...he did both. It's just that, as Ezra Klein wrote at the time, no one was listening.

To read pundits talking about presidential speeches, you'd think there was a statute requiring every American to watch every presidential address and then score a 75 percent or higher on a quiz testing their listening skills. In fact, pretty much no one watches presidential speeches...

And that's fine. It's good that we're not a dictatorship where everyone feels the need to memorize every word the leader utters. But it puts the lie to the idea that the president can simply orate a narrative directly into the American psyche. A small minority -- many of them political junkies who already know what they think -- will occasionally tune in to a particularly momentous address, and they may or may not stay for the whole thing, and they may or may not actually pay attention while they're watching. Somewhat more people will then get a partial summary through news coverage the next day. A week later, most people won't have heard the speech, and the few who did see or read the whole thing will largely have forgotten it. This is, in part, why presidents are worse at persuasion than people think: They do not have the rapt audience that so many assume.

...since no one is paying attention to the speeches, there's a lot in there that never penetrates into either the public consciousness or the media's thinking, and all White Houses are routinely criticized for not making arguments that they make all the time.

The vast majority of Americans don't listen to what the president actually says. They get their information from how various news outlets report on speeches or press conferences. If that is Fox News, then every Democratic utterance is nefarious. The rest of the media simply ignores any reference to positive achievements.

Pfeiffer's solution to this lopsided situation is for Democratic groups to produce more ads like this:


That could help, but with the diversification in entertainment and social media, it won't be enough. I think he nailed it with this:

The media has an important role to play, but it’s not the role many Democrats believe it to be. Communicating through the press should be part of the strategy, but it can’t be the whole strategy. And it’s not enough for the rest of us to sit on the sidelines. We have a role to play too...Every one of us can be curators and amplifiers.

Individuals playing the role of curators and amplifiers is the way things are accomplished from the ground up rather than the top down. That's what citizenship in a democracy looks like. 


  1. "During Obama's presidency, left wing critics often accused him of failing to use the bully pulpit to press his agenda or tout his accomplishments."

    I'm not even sure the bully pulpit ever really existed. Like, people say that LBJ was a master of the bully pulpit, and with the magic of his Green Lantern ring -- I mean, bully pulpit -- he could bend Congress to his will. The reality is, LBJ couldn't even get 8% of Southern Democrats to back the Civil Rights Act. And we don't even know that his efforts influenced a single one of that not-quite 8%. Behold the glory of the bully pulpit, where you can't even get 8% of your own party to change their minds on something.

    This is not to say that LBJ was a feckless loser; his talent was in being able to augur when Congress would be receptive to this or that. But forcing them to do his bidding ... ? That's not how it worked. So sorry all ye Lefties with your frankly authoritarian yearnings to have a strongman rule through sheer force of will. Now that's a model of government that nobody EVER regrets.

  2. 'Propaganda' controls the news. And the latest propagandistic blurb controls it NOW, until it is replaced by the next shiny object. The problem is that most of us don't read news now, we 'absorb' the sound bites, the tweets, the small pieces of stuff ranging from accusations to outrageous delusional excuses. And, unfortunately, those become the 'knowns'. I don't know if the Democratic Party is conditioned or constructed to this kind of 'news control'. It smacks way too much of trampism and is just plain crass in some cases. So, what can the Biden/Harris et al team do? Resort to the current tour, garnering all the video possible, and rely on the press secretary (a genius if I may say so), and then stand tall and show the nation what is important. And, go ahead and chastise, ridicule, and deny when and where necessary. The Democratic Party must be honest and at the same time, not kowtow to the absurdities of the R-epressive Party. I used to think that LBJ was the consummate arm-twister who knew not only that there were skeletons buried, but where they were, and could threaten to unearth them at the most inopportune time for someone who disregarded him. I liked LBJ even if he didn't realize the failure of Vietnam; he gave us Bill Moyers. Not an even trade, but one that is today ever so important. Grab the narrative, take charge, re-energize the efforts and the means to success.

  3. Everyone here is right, starting with a fine post, and I like Celui's starting with propaganda. The mainstream media eat it up, not only because bad news sells, but also because of faux balance and, yeah, just plain lazy journalism. Repeating propaganda gives you a cheap story, and then you can always get another one the next day asking for responses and the day after that in an "objective" analysis.

    There's a disappointing blog post today even in The New Republic missing the point. It asks why the garbage theory of the origins of the pandemic in a Chinese lab has gotten so much attention, and it answers that "we" dwell on origins because "we" want "closure." (Don't even ask why that means we don't cling to the obvious origins.)

    Nonsense. It's because the right-wing propaganda machine can't stop lying and the mainstream media can't stop eating it up.

  4. Democrats to policy, Republicans do bumper stickers.
    Covering Democrats requires longer discussions and work. Covering Republicans requires regurgitating slogans--just vapid and meaningless "bold statements". Actual governing is hard, so is covering actual governing.

  5. Another example of catering to Republicans that's really been nagging at me is coverage of the awful anti-Asian American violence. The Times has one story after another with their favorite subject, the "human side," meaning locating and getting a quote and photo from someone about their fears. Secondarily there's always the moral that it's always been that way, because of white prejudice.

    Now, I don't mean to demean fears or to downplay racism. But there's a huge elephant in the room here. There's a good reason that all but the worst right-wingers acknowledge a long overt history of violence against blacks, from whippings of slaves through lynchings through hoses turned on Civil Rights protests through police violence now. And a reason that we almost all acknowledge a less visible violence against women in the home. So why don't we have a similar popular awareness of Asian violence until recently?

    It's not racism alone, regardless of racism's role. And we can argue whether popular perception of Asians as star pupils and classification of Asians as white in college affirmative action is prejudicial as well, but such perceptions are telling about American attitudes. Nope, the elephant is that there has been a huge spike in anti-Asian violence, and it's no coincidence that it's come since Trump demonized Chinese to paper over his failures in diplomacy, in sucking up to China's leaders, in economic policy, and in addressing Covid-19. But we don't read that story because the media just don't like pointing the finger at you know who. Better to say that both sides do it. I'm not saying that we're not all racists at some level, but that the story that we're all racists is burying the big news.

    Oh, and incidentally today Keven Drum blames China for the misinformation about the origins of Covid-19. As if, comments on his thread point out, China cared. But again that misses the elephant: no one expected Trump's blatancy and the Trumpsters, abetted by the mainstream press, who eat it up.

  6. yeah...the bully pulpit is now in the churches...these preachers are breaking the law, they are breaking down the wall of separation of church and state, all leading to a bully dictatorship...sheesh...I miss you, Miss Nancy, over at the other blog...I don't know what happened, but I am happy to read your blog here...

    1. The churches are dying, and that is why they are getting more extremist. Their leaders are finally beginning to realise that they are losing power, so are ginning up the remains of their followers into an nazi-like front.

      America is slowly following the rest of the western world in becoming a post-religious society, but unfortunately for America, it's not doing so peacefully.

  7. The mainstream media vacillates between supporting the hard-right and the far-right. There is no hope unless the Democrats abandon their hard-right establishment and set up their own media system to broadcast what they are looking to do that the US needs.


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