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Guest Ticket: Joe Gandelman on Obama's boffo bully pulpit use

April 17, 2009 | 12:32 am

From time to time here on The Ticket we're inviting guest bloggers to share their views, insights and our space for loyal Ticket readers (newcomers also welcome, of course). Today's guest blogger is Joe Gandelman, a veteran journalist at home and abroad who is editor in chief of the thoughtful Moderate Voice blog.

At the bottom we've added links to some of Joe's recent posts back home. And, BTW, feel free to nominate your other favorite bloggers in the Comments section for possible future guest-blogging on The Ticket. Here's Joe with some fascinating links of his own:

When the conservative Republican Tea Party on Tax Day protest drew an estimated 250,000 people in cities across the country this week, the media narrative tea was diluted by a serving of something else abruptly poured into the mix:

Lo and behold, right in the middle of news coverage -- the wall-to-wall promo and live feeds on Fox News, which seems to see this as a franchise (can it be turned into a weekly series?) and shocked Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz -- guess who appeared in the White House and called in the press?

Yes: President Barack Obama appeared on cable TV, smack in the middle of tea party coverage, to remind voters that most Americans got tax cuts under his stimulus plan.

Obama aides, who mostly ignored the tea party scene until the tea bags thrown at the White House put the building into lockdown, decided to mark the day by reminding voters that most people have gotten a tax cut because of the economic stimulus bill that passed this year.

Joe Gandelman veteran journalist and editor in chief of The Moderate Voice blog guest Ticket blogger

“For too long, we’ve seen taxes used as a wedge to scare people into supporting policies that actually increased the burden on working people instead of helping them live their dreams,” Obama said, as the protest raged on across the street and beyond. “That has to change, and that’s the work that we’ve begun.”

This was hardly an isolated case of effective political public relations.

One of the most jolting adjustments Americans are having to make about Obama is that he is using the “bully pulpit” of the presidency -- his office’s aura when he appears, the early 21st century’s key info communications tools, the new and mainstream media’s news cycles, plus rapid-response media appearances of key administration officials to answer critic’s charges -- in a way that has never been seen before.

Other presidents have used their “bully pulpit” but few as cohesively -- and relentlessly -- as Obama.

By now it’s well known how Obama used the “netroots” to raise record money, mobilize supporters and get out his vote. His transformation of the president’s perfunctory and quaintly titled “Weekly Radio Address” (as if television still had variety shows starring Milton Berle, and Jack Benny was still radio’s biggest star) into the weekly YouTube/radio address … his online town hall … his live town halls here and abroad … his mastery of the press conference to deliver information, underscore his key message:

Show his grasp of issues and answer a wide range of questions … his willingness to go on Jay Leno’s late-night laugh fest. Etc.

But there is something more at play in the way Obama works as a ...

... politician and president: the linguistics of his speech and the way he appears:

Obama can be a moving orator as well as a boring, wonkish speaker. He can deliver a speech that sounds like a speech (soaring or pedestrian) but in interviews and news conferences he talks directly in a conversational way and tone that connect with many 21st century Americans.

It was also notable that there was a brouhaha over his deep-sixing the Bush administration’s you-must-wear-a-jacket in the Oval Office rule. Former Bush aide Andrew Card suggested Obama was showing a lack of respect for the office.

But the fact is: The early 21st century isn’t JFK’s or even Ronald Reagan’s era.

Apart from failing auto industries, neckties have also fallen on hard times. Tuxedos seem more relegated to high school proms, weddings, Oscar telecasts and get-togethers of the wealthy and elite.

Mid-20th century broadcasting has faded into narrowcasting as Americans splinter into groups that want to listen to, watch and believA casual Barack Obama on the Tonight Show with Jay Lenoe what they already listen to, watch and believe. Newspapers wither on advertising and circulation vines as young people eschew classifieds for Craigslist and EBay and get movie show times on their ever-present cellphones.

Many blog readers will only visit blogs they already agree with (why those posts are just BRILLIANT if you agree with every word and a bit of invective before you click on that site!).

19th century America was marked by segmentation -- families, states, regions with no mass media. The 20th century saw the rise of gathering places and mass media: vaudeville theaters, radio, movies and television plus the Internet’s late rise.

Now the early 21st century has spawned a new segmentation coupled with new cyberspace gathering spots such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.**

Obama is tuned into so many of these new communications networks that it’s only a matter of time before he personally Twitters — or submits a Guest Voice post to The Moderate Voice (we wish).

Meanwhile, despite significant recent steps toward populism, Internet mobilization and demonstrations more traditionally used by the left -- and despite a well-oiled talk radio/cable infomachine that communicates a cohesive party line to partisans -- the GOP today seems stunned and unable to cope with the way Obama operates and speaks.

To watch the GOP today is to be struck by how it is mired in late 20th century rhetorical quicksand in its tone and approach.

Obama is a “cool” presence on TV. Most GOPers -- key activists on TV and radio, and many of its leaders and lawmakers -- now seem virtually superglued to the baby boomer generation, Vietnam era- rooted Good Guys Us Versus Evil Guys Them hubris.

The GOP in 2009 is in danger of becoming the party of “hot talk” -- inexorably intertwined with a cable and talk-radio political culture that’s big on sarcasm, perpetual outrage, ridicule, name-calling and exaggeration while short on substantive policy alternatives or appeal to any but the GOP and talk-radio faithful.

If Obama is detested by the opposition party, he won’t be the first president who has used the “bully pulpit” to its fullest potential, using what is available in his era.

-- Theodore Roosevelt upset a lot of people with his personality, combativeness and willingness to use the full power of his office in promoting his ideas -- many of them anathema to traditional GOPers at the time. News cycles then were largely the booming newspapers that put out several daily editions in many cities. Public speaking in those days had a “speech pattern.”

Here’s a recording of a TR campaign speech. The language was speech-speak: not the way people talked.

-- Franklin Roosevelt used humor, controlled ridicule, popped up constantly on movie newsreels and fully exploited the new medium of radio’s potential in his fireside chats. Many now forget how despised he was by Republicans at the time.

Moreover, Roosevelt worked in a political culture where radio shows starring former vaudeville stars ruled,  and used sarcasm and often-dry humor to decimate his opponents. Watch his famous Dog Fala speech here. Roosevelt talked like a combination friend and radio announcer. The microphone loved him and so did the movie camera.

-- John F. Kennedy’s story is by now a cliche -- the debates, his exquisite use of the news conference to build his image and connect with audiences. 

But part of Kennedy’s power came from the way this member of the Greatest Generation talked. He also brought a kind of show biz glamor to the White House at a time when Hollywood was still booming. So he was popular? Anyone alive at the time remembers how JFK was despised by many of his political foes. That elusive quality called “charisma” helped JFK talk from a big bully pulpit.

President Barack appears to ponder an answer

-- Ronald Reagan was a movie star turned politician whose charisma and earnestness came across on TV. His”bully pulpit” came from his likability, as well as his ability to articulate a deeply felt vision.

But there was more: In his book “Leading From The Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” historian Gil Troy classifies Reagan as a moderate because of his ability to compromise with his foes. Reagan was (and is) hated by many of his foes.

Democrats often seemed stymied responding to him.

The difference with Obama? He seems to have brought many strands together in terms of fully using new communications venues, his ability to communicate at least a desire for national consensus versus “50 plus one” Rovian politics, and his own considerable skills.

So what happens next? If Obama gets results and uses his bully pulpit, he’ll continue to run rings around the GOP, even if upcoming tea parties draw far bigger crowds. If he doesn’t produce results, the bully pulpit will be wobbly and it won’t do him much good.

But the Obama camp’s adept use of 21st century and White House communications, coupled with more conversational “cool” talk versus talk radio-style “hot talk” means Obama is more likely to relate to younger voters and the substantial number of Americans who don’t love Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

If Obama even partially succeeds in enacting an agenda that works, it’s likely that future presidents will try to emulate his use of the 21st century bully pulpit.

And the GOP? The danger is that as it decides how to respond to Obama, younger conservatives might decide to role-model the baby boomer behavior and “hot talk” tone of the present Republican leadership and media heroes.

There’s nothing wrong with that -- except it’ll be preaching to the choir.

But it’s the lead preacher who has the bully pulpit and knows how to use it and can win over the ENTIRE church….

-- Joe Gandelman

Gandelman is editor in chief of the respected Moderate Voice blog. Here for your perusal are some of his recent posts back on his home blog:

**Speaking of Twitter, click here to register for automatic alerts on each new Ticket item's posting.

Photos, from top: NBC; Anthony Devlin / AFP/Getty Images