Deconstructing The Bully Pulpit

In the aftermath of President Obama’s affirmation of same-sex marriage,  a fascinating poll by PPP showed a truly dramatic shift of opinion in the African-American community in favor of such unions.

Now, polling is hardly an exact science (as a colleague of mine who teaches survey research is fond of saying, really sound polling costs a lot more money that political partisans are willing to spend), and this poll may prove to be an anomaly. While I have no evidence to back this up, however, my hunch is that the President’s use of the “bully pulpit” did make a difference. Indeed, control of that pulpit has long been thought to be one of the levers of power available to the nation’s leaders.

The interesting question is: why? Why should the opinion of even a powerful politician operate to change citizens’ positions on highly-charged issues?

I can think of two possible theories, although I’m sure there are more. The first is that–despite the heated rhetoric that seems to envelop those of us who follow public opinion–a significant number of Americans “tune out” such conversations. They live their lives without paying very much attention to governmental or political affairs, and (unbelievable as it may seem to us political junkies) hold superficial positions in which they really aren’t particularly invested. When a public figure or celebrity they admire takes a position contrary to one they’ve lightly held, such people are willing to reconsider.

The other theory is that a Presidential use of the bully pulpit operates as permission to accept cultural change. The stereotype has been that homophobia is more deeply rooted in the African-American community, where it has been reinforced by much of the black church. Whatever the validity of that stereotype, the black community has not been insulated from the significant changes in public opinion about homosexuality. Over the past decade at least, Civil Rights organizations and African-American political leaders have made common cause with the GLBT community, chipping away at what consensus may have existed. When the (black) President announced his support for same-sex marriage, it was experienced as permission to affirm a cultural shift that was already well underway.

As I say, these are theories; I have no data to confirm or reject them. But the consequences of President Obama’s statement should remind all of us that the bully pulpit is not simply a fiction of the political imagination. Used judiciously, that pulpit can educate, admonish and move the country forward.