As I watched the President's jobs legislation go down for a second time against the backdrop of a growing "Occupy Wall Street" movement, I couldn't help but wonder -- what happened to the Presidential bully pulpit? There was a time when the President created the framework of political debate in this country. How is it that this President struggles so much to connect with the electorate or to inspire Americans to act on their own behalf? Almost every major issue during the Obama presidency was defined for the President, not by the President. Has President Obama simply surrendered the bully pulpit or is the proliferation of advocacy media posing as hard news insurmountable?
President Obama deserves credit for taking his jobs proposal directly to the American people rather than trying to move a recalcitrant Congress. However, he was handicapped out of the gate by a media infrastructure that is designed to influence as much as it informs. A highly partisan media framed the jobs bill debate as it also framed the debates on the economic crisis, health care reform, the auto bailout, and countless other issues facing the nation.
The message that sticks with most Americans during this jobs debate is that the President wants to raise taxes. The fact that such an increase would only apply to those making more than a million dollars yearly is lost. What people hear is "tax increase." During the health reform debate, what Americans heard was that Medicare would be gutted and the government would form death panels to decide who among the sick and elderly would die and who would receive medical treatment. The auto bailout was portrayed as a communistic plot by the government to assume control of private industry, thus ending capitalism as we know it. Layered into these debates, and further adding to the nation's paranoia, was growing media coverage that the President might not have been born in the United States and could be an illegal president or that he is a Muslim who is actively supporting terrorism.
While many people believe these assertions to be laughable, many others really believe this nonsense. And where are they hearing this ridiculousness? Who in the media are the main proponents of such propaganda? Believe it or not, the biggest political opponent to this President isn't the Republican Party. The real challenger is talk radio.
As has been well documented, Republicans have spent the last thirty years creating and financially supporting a comprehensive message machine that includes outlet infrastructure such as Fox News, an infinite number of print and online outlets, and talk radio. And while Democrats can claim MSNBC, Current TV, progressive bloggers and a few fledgling talk radio programs, none have the power and reach of Conservative media -- particularly talk radio.
Talk radio is larger than any other media platform. Notwithstanding the amount of attention paid to cable news and the Internet, the raw numbers of voters who listen to talk radio dwarf all other political media. The main reason is that roughly 140 million people commute to and from work in automobiles, where they have no access to computer or TV screens. For around a third of them, or 48 million, talk radio is their media of choice.
Talk radio holds the dominant media presence in the nation's political discourse with ongoing political dialogue, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glen Beck are the top three talk personalities in the nation who reach a combined 40 million listeners each day -- nearly ten times greater than the combined audiences of Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Headline News and CNBC.
Within the current media landscape, Republicans are having a highly effective conversation with the American public -- all day, every day, and all year long -- not just intermittently as part of a policy proposal or political campaign. And what should trouble Democrats most is how effectively Republicans use this infrastructure to undermine the President and raise doubts in the minds of Americans about his effectiveness.
Despite talk radio's proven ability to influence the nation, and despite proof that even the smallest investment can yield successful progressive media brands (e.g. Rachel Maddow & Ed Schultz), Democrats largely ignore talk radio as a major political force. Although Democrats are nothing less than genius in their use of cutting edge mobile media, they typically view talk radio as a medium for troglodytes. They operate under the assumption that talk radio listeners are life-long die-hard right wingers whose views are not subject to change. That's simply not true.
According to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, conservative Republicans make up only 28% of talk radio's audience, moderate Republicans make up 13%, moderate Democrats make up 13% and liberal Democrats make up 20% of talk radio's audience. Those identifying themselves as independents made up the remaining 26% of the talk audience. This means that potentially half of talk radio's audience is open-minded enough to be influenced. So far, Republicans are they only ones talking to them. From Democrats they hear mostly silence.
Social movements can occur as a reaction to inspiration or alienation. The proliferation of advocacy media and talk radio has driven a wedge so deep into the political psyche of this nation it's no wonder we're seeing the emergence of the Tea Party and Occupy movements. These are Americans who feel alienated by their leaders and lack confidence in their ability to solve the nation's ills. The result is a national divide that is growing daily as President Obama struggles to maintain the confidence of a nation that is becoming increasingly anxious while it helplessly watches the American middle class fade to near extinction.
Unless Democrats begin to recognize that they have a gaping communications hole in talk radio and begin to focus some strategic energy to fill it, they risk further alienating a country that is hungry for solutions and craving inspiration -- the kind of inspiration it felt from the President in 2008 and the kind of inspiration that can only come from a President. I don't believe President Obama has purposely surrendered the bully pulpit. But continuing to ignore talk radio will have the same effect. So what's the difference?