Bully Pulpit: Definition & Meaning

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

American politics are full of ways to manipulate power. In this lesson we'll look at a commonly-accepted tool called the bully pulpit, and see how it's used in politics today.

The Bully Pulpit

You have to admire the way that people spoke in the early 20th century. I warrant this is cause for ruminations. It behooves me to remind you of your sensibilities. Or one of my personal favorites: bully for you. While the world bully means something very specific to us, it was used differently around the start of the 20th century and basically meant good or awesome. So bully for you means good for you, just as a bully pulpit would be a good pulpit. But what exactly does that mean? A bully pulpit is an interesting term, used today to describe a position of authority that gives someone the chance to speak out about a certain issue. More specifically, it's often used to refer to the power the president of the United States has in swaying public opinion. After all, the office of President is one of great social power, not just legal power.However, this had led some people to worry if the power of this office is a bully pulpit, or sometimes just bullying.

History of the Term

The term bully pulpit dates back the very beginning of the 20th century, back when people used that sort of language. Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, came into office after almost 50 years of the federal government staying out of people's lives. Throughout the late 19th century, the government was pretty hands-off, and relatively weak in terms of how much power we expect it to have today. Roosevelt wanted to change that. Many historians call the first two decades of the 20th century the Progressive Era, characterized by sweeping reforms across American society carried both by private activists and an increasingly-growing federal government.

Teddy Roosevelt was the first to embrace the power of the bully pulpit
Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt was the first major Progressive-Era president. He saw the presidency as a tool to enact great changes, and wasn't afraid to use that tool. He signed numerous pieces of legislation, created levels of federal administrative bureaus, and created executive orders. All of that is strictly within the legal power of the president. However, Roosevelt also believed that this power extended to social influence, and he used his popularity and access to media as president to simply ask the American people to change things. If there was a problem in society that needed reform, Roosevelt told the people not to sit around and wait for the government to fix it, but to go out and start fixing it themselves. In an interview about how he used his presidential power to influence American opinions through his numerous and passionate speeches, Roosevelt said I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have such a bully pulpit! The term stuck, and has been used to describe the president's social influence ever since.

Uses of the Bully Pulpit

So, if the office of the presidency is a pulpit, then what sort of sermons have American presidents been giving? Many presidents have social issues that are important to them, but which aren't well suited for introducing through an executive order or pushing into Congress. For example, during WWII, president Franklin D. Roosevelt (TR's distantly-related younger cousin) used the bully pulpit to try and maintain a sense of national unity and faith in the government. Through his national radio addresses called the fireside chats, FDR asked the American people to be patient, to support the war effort, and to remain united as a nation. He used the social power of his office to reinforce public opinion, and did so very successfully.

The firesides chats of FDR were a chance to use the bully pulpit for national unity during war

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