President Obama and the Effectiveness of the Bully Pulpit

President Obama had not even been sworn in for his second term when he used the ‘bully pulpit’ to introduce his initiative to control guns outside of Congressional action.

The bully pulpit means to seek the support of the public on a position directly, without any filters. It is considered a difficult strategy to pull off, and with a suspicious press, often backfires. It requires a lot of moving parts to come together. It is seldom proposed, less seldom supported, and often vehemently opposed.  But, if it can be pulled off, it can be a very powerful tool for generating support, even for controversial positions. Nationally, Presidents Barack Obama, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were among the best at effectively using the Bully Pulpit.  Not so much for Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

An effective bully pulpit presentation usually requires a very serious subject, exhaustive knowledge of that subject by the speaker, as well as extraordinary speaking skills, and varying degrees of the following:

-Timing, ensuring that the remarks are relevant and appropriate for the time; a solid

-Organization, with a strong opening, sequential building of your case, and a powerful close; a strong

-Presentation, with constant eye contact, consistent body language and strategic pauses; and lastly a

-Call to Action that must be compelling and consequential.

In Florida politics, individuals that I have seen most effective at using the Bully Pulpit have been:

Florida Governors Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Jeb Bush; Senators Tom Adams, Buddy Mackay, and Curt Kiser; and Representatives Don Tucker, Ralph Haben, Jon Mills and Marco Rubio.

The one individual least effective at using the bully pulpit today is Florida Governor Rick Scott.  He appears to be naturally shy, and it is well documented that he has less than knowledge of Florida government than any chief executive ever elected, so in fairness, it would be hard for him to meet the criteria outlined above. 

It might be wise for Governor Scott ,or any others seeking to obtain public support directly, to study the public speaking of President Barack Obama and his use of the bully pulpit in advancing his gun control initiative.  The issue was serious, he understood the legal ramifications of the second Amendment to the Constitution, the timing followed on the heels of Sandy Hook, his presentation mixed emotions with firm resolve, and his call to action was motivating for most, even his opponents.

Robert W. McKnight is a former Florida state senator and representative, who represented South Dade County and the Florida Keys from 1974-1982. He has written two books on Florida politics and is a political commentator on Facing Florida and for The Huffington Post and The Contributor.  He also has a political blog and can be reached at

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