BOSTON — Over the past seven years, President Bill Clinton has traded in the bully pulpit of the presidency for the roast-master's podium at the $5,000-a-plate dinner. Since January 1997, Clinton has spoken at more than 350 fund-raising events, an average of one every three days. He is the most prodigious presidential fund-raiser in U.S. history, soliciting nearly a billion dollars in donations.
But, at that same time, he has all but abandoned presidential speechmaking, rarely deigning to employ the majesty of his office to build support for his policies. Except for the constitutionally mandated State of the Union addresses, Clinton has not summoned a joint session of Congress to lobby for pressing items on his national agenda. Rarely has he addressed the nation from the Oval Office or stumped for programs on a whistle-stop tour.
Strangely, this president so concerned with his legacy and so unable to translate his popularity into concrete achievements, has largely squandered his political gifts. Insurance industry ads torpedoed his health-care plan, and since then, Clinton seems determined never to be outgunned on the airwaves. He prefers to govern through campaign commercials, to sway the American people only indirectly, through 30-second spots. But the results have been indifferent. Nearly all his plans languish. Or they remain merely campaign positions, effective political wedge issues like gun control, rather than genuine policy achievements.
Americans might well wonder how much more Clinton would have accomplished if he spent less time on the rubber-chicken circuit and more effort winning support for his policies. Certainly, Clinton's preference for television commercials, purchased with soft money, over direct communication with the American people sharply differs from his predecessors' behavior in the White House. Through major addresses, presidents have led a reluctant nation to war and prepared Americans for the responsibilities and sacrifices of international leadership. Presidential speeches have explained the necessity of reforming the banking system and the tax code; they roused public opinion to move a recalcitrant Congress. In forsaking this tradition, Clinton has both diminished the office of the presidency and marked a quiet revolution in U.S. politics.
The first modern president, Theodore Roosevelt, envisioned the White House as a "bully pulpit." Roosevelt realized there was no real difference between presidential rhetoric and presidential power: Speechmaking was one of a president's most important actions. TR understood that public speaking--establishing priorities, forging consensus--would become a powerful tool for national leadership. He used the White House, the publicity easily mobilized by the presidency, as a political big stick. Sometimes he lobbied for dubious causes like spelling reform, but he also persuaded Americans to embrace his passions for conservation, military preparedness and physical fitness.
While TR popularized the term bully pulpit, his rival Woodrow Wilson first recognized and systematically exploited its full potential. Wilson was the first president in more than a century to appear in person before Congress. He used the resources of his office to set the legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. Most important, the former Princeton professor viewed himself as an educator and the president as the tribune of all the people. He repeatedly went over the heads of Congress and local political bosses, cultivating support for his reforms through extensive speaking tours. In 1919, when his greatest monument, the peace treaty that would establish his beloved League of Nations, faced defeat in the Senate, Wilson refused to compromise. Instead, he took the case to the country, expounding the treaty at whistle stops across the nation. The frail leader traveled so vigorously that he suffered a serious stroke on the road, a collapse that crippled his presidency and ultimately doomed the treaty.
After the arrival of radio, President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the White House into the nation's fireside--reassuring a Depression-weary populace, explaining his controversial decisions and building constituencies for such revolutionary programs as Social Security. Radio, FDR understood, allowed the executive to govern more effectively and independently, to circumvent the vested interests and conservative newspaper editors who often blocked reform.
Moreover, FDR held two press conferences every week, a morning session to supply scoops to the evening papers and an afternoon meeting to favor the overnight editions. He built such close rapport with the White House press corps that newspapers became a regular way for the president to address the nation and to lead public opinion on important domestic and foreign-policy questions.