Stirewaltisms: Imaginary Powers, Real Defeats


As I write this, President Biden is preparing for a national primetime address to the American people about firearms and mass shootings. 

It will be Biden’s first primetime address since March 2021 when he marked the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus lockdown. 

Even though Biden is well-known for making fewer public appearances than his predecessors, his reticence to use the evening television address, considered the ultimate “bully pulpit,” has been treated as somehow notable. As if Biden had the power to mold public opinion to his will in the past, but neglected the opportunity.

Biden has never been a persuasive orator, so it seems odd that people would demand that he do more of it and at higher stakes. Even the greatest communicators who have occupied the White House have seldom seen policy reforms as a result of swaying public opinion, so why would anyone foist that task on Biden?

But he is only the most recent president to be afflicted by the unhealthy attachment to the belief in the power of presidential persuasion in American political life. 

You know that the term “bully pulpit” came from progressive hero Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that the presidency would provide a wonderful — “bully” — platform to influence public opinion. But as even T.R. himself would learn, the pulpit is not all that it is cracked up to be. 

One of the laziest forms of political analysis is to attach to the sitting president superhuman powers of persuasion and then blame the same president for failing to use all of his might to win the day. 

Barack Obama is a good speaker and can be persuasive in his arguments, but on the occasions when he turned to “the big speech” to change the game, he mostly came up empty-handed. Obama’s first Oval Office address was to discuss an ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It did not change the way the public felt about oil in the ocean, though Obama was still blamed for not changing perceptions. 

Republicans repeatedly urged President Donald Trump to deliver an Oval Office address on the coronavirus. He eventually did, and it was a disaster

When presidents are unpopular and their agendas are stalled, the safest criticism from friends is to say, “If only people knew your passion on this matter.” This is akin to the “let [blank] be [blank]” construction often favored by partisans looking for flattering ways to point to correction. 

As far as I know, the original use of that term was with Ronald Reagan, i.e. “let Reagan be Reagan.” The message was that Reagan was a great communicator who had a wonderful way of explaining his policies to the American people, so don’t over prepare or manage him. Indeed, Reagan’s sales pitch for his 1981 tax cuts is one of the few notable examples of effective bully pulpit usage in recent generations.

But by the end of his presidency, “let Reagan be Reagan” may or may not have been good advice. Certainly for most of his successors, being themselves is an even more dubious proposition. 

Biden should not be judged on whether or not he can change Americans’ attitudes about gun control through a speech. Biden should be judged by whether or not he is willing to take on the members of his own party to encourage compromise on a mainstream response to school shootings. 

Asking presidents to do the impossible and then faulting them for failing is not productive analysis. 

Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


Biden job performance

Average approval: 39.8 percent
Average disapproval: 56 percent
Net score: -16.2 points
Change from one week ago:  ↑ 3 points
Change from one month ago: ↓ 4.2 points

[Average includes: Ipsos/Reuters: 42% approve-52% disapprove; Gallup: 41% approve-54% disapprove; Marquette University Law School: 42% approve-57% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 35% approve-57% disapprove; AP/NORC: 39% approve-60% disapprove]

Generic congressional ballot 

Democrats: 44.2 percent
Republicans: 46.8 percent
Net advantage: Republican Party +2.6 points
Change from one week ago: No change
Change from one month ago: Republican Party ↑ 0.8 points

[Average includes: Quinnipiac University: 43% Democrat; 47% Republican; NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College: 47% Democrat, 42% Republican; NBC News: 46% Democrat, 46% Republican; Monmouth University: 43% Democrat, 50% Republican; CNN/SSRS: 42% Democrat, 49% Republican]


The ineffable Caitlin Flanagan explores her newly discovered status as a “coastal grandmother,” the new aesthetic craze of TikTok. Think Ina Garten nestled in a beach-front Hamptons mansion, sipping a chilled rosé. The Atlantic: “As I’m the last person to discover, TikTok is not just a fun delivery system of endless distractions. It’s a ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ bit of trickery. It doesn’t just know about your meat loaves and your sex workers. Every time you log on, you’re shedding blood cells and hair fibers. Attempts to assert yourself against the machine—scrolling past some videos, rewatching others, leaving a bread-crumb trail of your own humanity in the form of likes and little DMs—only solidify TikTok’s power as your master. It shucks off the husk of ‘personality’ encoded in these decisions, and adds what’s left to an ever-more-thorough profile of your DNA. It was through these dark arts that I learned I am a ‘coastal grandmother.’”

Los Angeles Times: “With the lack of suspense in California’s marquee races, the greatest challenge facing voters may be rousing themselves enough to cast ballots to decide other contests that could sway the balance of power in Congress and the future of state criminal justice policies. … The low-intensity vibe threatens to suppress turnout and boil down the June electorate to habitual voters and hardcore partisans, a result traditionally favoring Republicans. That could be counterbalanced, however, by the contentious race for mayor of Los Angeles, a contest outshining everything else on the ballot. … Low voter turnout would stand in stark contrast to California officials mailing a ballot to all 22 million voters with an active registration. Those ballots could largely remain unopened by voters who more often turn out to participate in presidential election cycles.”

McCarthy PAC tries to save rising star from MAGA eclipse: New York Times: “After Representative Young Kim, a Republican, flipped an Orange County House seat in 2020, she was hailed as one of the new faces of the [GOP] … a 58-year-old Korean American politician who was able to win a seat even as Joe Biden carried the district at the top of the ticket. … And yet an expensive rescue mission on Kim’s behalf has been not so quietly underway in recent weeks ahead of California’s June 7 primary, which was supposed to have been a cakewalk for [Kim]. … Unlike Kim, [her Republican challenger Greg Raths] hasn’t been a successful federal candidate. A member of the Mission Viejo City Council who has also served as mayor, he has lost three congressional elections since 2014. … On the stump, he reminds voters that Kim voted to censure Trump and to remove Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from congressional committees.”

Moderate Dem makes waves in race for L.A. mayor: National Review: “Los Angeles is days [a]way from a mayoral primary that is likely to send a signal about how much the political center of gravity has shifted in recent years, and the local media out there are fuming that no criticism seems to stick to billionaire Rick Caruso. … All of the polling puts Caruso and his top rival, Democratic congresswoman Karen Bass, in the low- to mid-30s in a nine-candidate race. (One poll put Caruso at 37 percent; if a mayoral candidate wins more than 50 percent, that candidate is declared the winner with no runoff.) Assuming the polling is accurate, Caruso and Bass will go to the November election neck-and-neck. … In the end, Bass may successfully paint Caruso as a Republican in Democratic clothing and ride the city’s traditional progressivist lean to victory in November.” 

Pennsylvania Dems fret over Fetterman’s health: NBC News: “Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman does not have a timetable for returning to the campaign trail, sparking some worries in the party nearly three weeks after he suffered a stroke and surgeons implanted a pacemaker with a defibrillator to regulate his heartbeat. Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has appeared publicly only in recorded video since the stroke. His wife is speaking to the media on his behalf. And the situation has prompted Democrats to refresh their knowledge of state ballot-replacement law — the deadline is in August — according to two party sources who said they don’t anticipate a candidate switch being necessary. … The Republican primary is mired in a recount, with fewer than a thousand votes separating Mehmet Oz — the celebrity TV doctor with a background in cardiothoracic surgery — and former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick.”

Dubious signatures may doom Whitmer’s top GOP challengers: Detroit News: “Two Republican candidates for governor [Perry Johnson and Donna Brandenburg] who’ve been knocked off the ballot because of a gush of alleged petition forgeries have asked the Michigan Supreme Court to immediately hear their cases and intervene to put their names on the August primary ballot. … On May 23, the Michigan Bureau of Elections revealed its findings that five GOP candidates for governor hadn’t submitted the required 15,000 valid petition signatures. In addition to Johnson, Brandenburg and [former Detroit police chief James Craig], financial adviser Michael Markey of Grand Haven and Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown were also caught in the alleged web of forgeries. … Craig has been widely viewed as the front runner in the primary race for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.”


Battle of the billionaires for Illinois governorship gets even pricer —Chicago Tribune

Ben Sasse’s strategy for a reset in student loans and higher ed—Atlantic 

Matt Labash: Smoke gets in your eyes — Slack Tide 

WSJ-NORC poll: 68 percent of Americans want to keep RoeWall Street Journal 

House impeachment lawyer jumps into crowded New York House primary—NBC News 

Ron Johnson blames CRT, “indoctrination” for school shootings—Kenosha News


“I wanted to be out here and show the intersectional area of where this case fits, too, because I do think there was a bit of biphobia in the way that [Johnny Depp] treated her.”—Sydni Porter, who came to a Fairfax County, Virginia courthouse in anticipation of a verdict in Depp’s defamation lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard. According to the Washington Post, Porter “wasn’t necessarily a fan of Heard and had only seen her in a couple movies, but knew the actress was bisexual and also wanted to support her on the first day of Pride Month.” 


“Our politics are a side show.  The future of the United States will be determined by the birth rate. Now at the lowest ever, we have not produced the 2.1 Total Fertility Rate needed for a stable population since the early 1970s. Social Security, Medicare, and our defense forces, are unsustainable without  a return to a birthrate of at least two children per woman. We can not have a thriving economy if our population is dying in the long term.” —Robert de Marcellus, McLean, Virginia 

But I don’t want to have any more kids, Mr. de Marcellus, so I guess I will have to keep writing this note. … But seriously, I do understand the challenges America is facing with its birth rate and know the consequences for a country that cannot sustain itself. America’s lot is made easier than some of the other countries in the world because we have so many people from around the world who want to move here, but that doesn’t address the underlying problem. As the recent coronavirus-uptick in the birth rate shows, Americans are still up to the task, but have been discouraged by a variety of factors. So let me suggest that low birth rates are more symptomatic of other problems we have as a nation. A return to civic virtue and a renewed emphasis on loving our neighbors would surely produce favorable outcomes on birth rates.

You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and always good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission anonymous. My colleague, THE Samantha Goldstein, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack! 


(Photo by Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images.)

A touching Memorial Day photo made for a very tough cutline contest, but reader Eric Swenson nailed it with the winning entry for the last week of May:

“I’m going to need to detain your truck sir. It’s been flagged by our agent.”—Eric Swenson, Winsted, Connecticut

It’s also time to announce our winner for the month of May. The competition for a genuine sunflower pin from Kansan Alf Landon’s 1936 presidential campaign was intense, including a Sir Mix-a-Lot joke. But who can resist a handsome, skeptical bear? For our discussion of the possibility of rental bears for personal use, we have the winner:

“Hi, is this the **checks notes** Stirewalt wedding?”—Chris Lee, Corvallis, Oregon

Congratulations! Please email us your address and we will send your trophy along straight away.

Your chances begin anew with the arrival of the June contest, so readers should send in their proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the top entrants and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun! 


Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Jesse Garon is the city of Las Vegas’ go-to Elvis impressionist. … Garon’s primary source of income is performing wedding ceremonies as the King. Garon has performed 650 wedding ceremonies a year in his Elvis jumpsuit, shades and 1955 pink Cadillac convertible. Now all of that is in jeopardy because of an effort by Authentic Brands Group to stop Las Vegas chapels from using the King’s name and likeness to drive business and offer wedding ceremonies. … The company, which authorizes Elvis Presley’s name and likeness, has come after several Las Vegas chapels in recent days, including issuing cease-and-desist orders. The warning calls on them to ditch Elvis (and the moniker The King of Rock and Roll) in marketing and amenities. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman criticized ABG for threatening to move forward with ‘an industry-devastating act.’”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Broken News, a book on media and politics available August 23. Samantha Goldstein contributed to this report.

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