Bully Pulpit and the Rhetorical Presidency
“President Roosevelt, sitting at his desk, was reading to a few friends a forthcoming message. At the close of a paragraph ‘of a distinctly ethical character’ he wheeled about and said: ‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!’”8 This Roosevelt quote published in the New York Times coined a term that is still widely used today. The bully pulpit is an office or position that provides the incumbent with an immense opportunity to speak out on an issue. Roosevelt’s theory of the president as a steward of the people was naturally conducive to the beginning of the rhetorical presidency and the view of the executive as a bully pulpit. Seeing himself as governing in the interest of the country, he spoke directly to the American people very frequently. Roosevelt ushered in the era of the rhetorical presidency whereas the president uses popular rhetoric as a principal technique of presidential leadership.9 Every president to follow Roosevelt has used this as a tool to garner and mobilize public opinion to their favor. This is evident when considering the advent of modern technology and the use thereof such as: the first radio broadcast of the State of the Union, FDR’s fireside chats, and Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis televised address.
The Roosevelt administration used the bully pulpit most effectively to pass the Hepburn Act. The Hepburn Rate Act of 1906 gave vast power to the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroad shipping rates.10 This act was an expansion of the Elkins Act of 1903 which had loopholes that railroad executives were too pleased to use. The bill passed through the House of Representatives with ease but did not have the same luck in the Senate. The Senate held drawn out public hearings and ultimately took enough time so that a vote would not be able to take place before Congress’ summer recess. Roosevelt saw the passage of this bill as of utmost importance and in the spring of 1905 he embarked on a campaign trip in support of the Hepburn Act. In Chicago at the Iroqoius-Republican club, Roosevelt declared that the first step toward better oversight of corporations, “should be the adoption conferring upon some executive body the power of increased supervision and regulation of the great corporations engaged primarily in interstate commerce of the railroad.”11 Roosevelt traversed the Southwest and Midwest to much success and returned with the same purpose the following fall. Upon his return to the White House and with public opinion on his side, the Hepburn Rate Act passed through the Senate comfortably in the late winter and early spring of 1906. Even senators who were in opposition to the bill were too afraid of voting against the public opinion that Roosevelt had masterfully amassed in the year since the Senate failed to vote on it. It is worth noting that the president’s political party was in opposition to the bill the entire way and it still passed. The power of Theodore Roosevelt as a bully pulpit cannot be understated.
It is difficult to understand the importance of the beginning of the rhetorical presidency and its bully pulpit in a contemporary lens. In the 21st century world leaders are able to communicate with the public digitally or in person on a whim to persuade or mobilize public opinion. Roosevelt set this precedent and by doing so increased the power of future presidents to lead the charge in policy-making. Before Roosevelt's ascension to the presidency, many presidents had solely been a pen-wielding figurehead who sat on the back-burner of domestic policy creation.
8 “Roosevelt Administration.” New York Times, 4 Mar. 1909, pp. 8
9 Sidney Milkis and Michael Nelson, The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2002 (CQ Press, 2007)
10 The Interstate Commerce Act: Full Text of the Act to Regulate Commerce as Amended to Date Including the Elkins and Hepburn Acts (Railway Age, 1906). https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.hl4nbd
11 Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt Papers: Series 5: Speeches and Executive Orders, -1918; Subseries 5B: "White House Volumes," 1901 to 1909; Vol. 11, 1905, Mar. 4-June 22. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/mss382990708