Bully pulpit fizzles for Biden

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President Biden isn’t getting a ton of help from the bully pulpit.

The White House is supposed to provide a big advantage, allowing the president to speak out and command attention on any public issue. It’s an enormous opportunity to shape public opinion or hit back at opponents politically.

But it hasn’t provided much of a boost to Biden over the last year.

The president’s approval rating is stuck in the high 30s or low 40s amid rising gas prices and high inflation in an election year that is looking like a difficult one for Democrats.

For nearly a year, Biden and his team have sought to use the power of the office and the pulpit to work on those numbers, to little success.

In the fall, Biden couldn’t completely corral Democrats around his Build Back Better agenda, though he did win victories on a COVID-19 relief package and a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

He’s now facing a new test with his call on Wednesday for a three-month suspension of the federal gas tax.

Biden went to the cameras to give his message, and news organizations led with the fact that the announcement was coming on Wednesday morning.

But it didn’t appear to be providing immediate dividends. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Biden’s top congressional ally, didn’t bend, declining to back his proposal.

“We will see where the consensus lies on a path forward for the President’s proposal in the House and the Senate, building on the strong bills to lower prices at the pump already passed by House Democrats including the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act and the Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act,“ Pelosi said in a statement shortly after Biden’s speech.

Some observers think the problem isn’t really Biden’s but the nature of the presidency. They think the bully pulpit just isn’t what it used to be.

“It’s just a sign of the times,” Michael Eric Dyson, the noted historian and professor, said. “The distraction, the attention economy has been depleted.”

Some historians argue that social media, the 24/7 news cycle and the rise of former President Trump have fundamentally changed the bully pulpit in a way that has worked against Biden.

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said she recently asked an audience of roughly 200 people, with the average age of 65, how many watched Biden’s prime-time speech on guns the evening prior, and only five or six raised their hands.

“I was stunned,” Perry said.

Biden is perhaps most significantly limited as president to address inflation that has hit a 40-year high and gas prices that have averaged $5 per gallon.

In his speech on Wednesday, Biden proposed that Congress move to suspend the 18 cent per gallon federal gas tax through September to provide Americans some relief during the busy summer vacation months. He also called on governors to suspend state gas taxes or provide a form of equivalent relief and urged oil companies to boost gas production.

“I fully understand that the gas tax holiday alone is not going to fix the problem,” Biden said from the South Court Auditorium, his prepared remarks complimented by an elaborate backdrop display of images related to gas prices and Russia’s war in Ukraine. “But it will provide families some immediate relief, just a little bit of breathing room, as we continue working to bring down prices for the long haul.”

A poll from Consumer Brands and Ipsos released on Wednesday found that 72 percent of adults reported grocery inflation having at least a somewhat significant impact on their household budgets. That is likely contributing to the public’s gloomy outlook; more than 60 percent of those polled in multiple surveys over the last few months believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

“Presidents can move public opinion more in areas that are more detached for everyday experience,” said Bill Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program.

“No matter whether you’re Joe Biden or the ‘great communicator’ Ronald Reagan, you’re going to have a hard time changing people’s basic perspectives,” Galston said.

There have been a few times the presidential megaphone has worked in Biden’s favor, according to observers.

Perry said she believed the speech Biden gave following the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting demanding that Congress pass a host of measures to curb mass shootings that have devastated the country was the best of his presidency so far.

While the bipartisan package of measures that advanced this week is far more pared down than what Biden called for earlier in June, there nevertheless has been more movement on the gun issue on Capitol Hill than in the last decade.

And while he has recorded some meaningful legislative wins — including the sweeping trillion-dollar coronavirus relief package and a bipartisan infrastructure law — he has struggled to unite his party behind a sweeping domestic spending package and time and again run up against blanket Republican opposition in the form of the legislative filibuster.

“The bully pulpit is always limited, especially in a highly polarized world where public opinion doesn’t change dramatically,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, who added that Biden has stepped into an era that has been building since the 1980s. “I don’t think any president can do much in terms of huge swings in opinion.”

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