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The Return of the Rhetorical Presidency

    Biden Consoles a Uvalde Texas Resident

Crowds of the last President could seem like supplicants. He and they relished the traveling spectacle. But Biden’s audiences are less interested in his celebrity than his management of national problems. That’s as it should be.

Joe Biden has done a useful service to the nation by restoring the Presidency as a place that fosters inclusive and upbeat messages. The sneers and put-downs of the former occupant that irreparably scarred the nation are gone, replaced by consistently optimistic and forward-looking messages asking citizens to be their better selves. That is the legacy of hope that is a presidential norm, and it is a relief to have it reinstated. The Biden Presidency is—like its namesake—may appear to be ‘old-school,’ mostly without Twitter asides and harsh snap judgments that are beneath the presidency.  We no longer hear vacuous presidential pronouncements about the low tv ratings of political enemies, or windy statements of self-congratulation. Given the resources of the United States, an administration should be an institution that tries to lift the hopes of all Americans, leaving the villain-making apparatus of social media and the political margins to others. Gone for the time being are the disrupters, some of whom are finally seeing their grifts and seditious acts replayed in court.

In the last few years the nation has suffered through some bleak times. A few cases, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan or launching COVID relief efforts, have included moments of White House fumbling. But the President’s accomplishments are substantial and attributable to his tenacious style to embrace the needs of as many Americans as possible.  Accomplishments are supported by frequent public statements to explain their significance. This President acts like he holds a public office and accountable for his actions. These include various programs to help low-income children and their parents, the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, progress on climate change, and reenergizing of NATO alliance. Our long-suffering allies again feel like they have a reliable partner.  Although the full story has yet to be written, most are pleased with White House leadership through the Ukraine crisis. In spite of empty ageist grumbling, Biden’s leadership has been ambitious and aggressively engaged.

Will 2024 coincide with a national mood when many Americans are again prepared to trash the institution’s norms? 

The essence of the rhetorical presidency involves the ability to articulate core national values when they are needed. Most recently, President Biden went to both Buffalo New York and Uvalde Texas in May to console families and the nation after these massacres.  On this issue and others he frequently addresses the nation. Interestingly, while Biden was in Texas pleading with the nation to do better in regulating guns, Donald Trump was rallying gun owners and manufacturers at the NRA’s annual meeting in Houston. He still relishes being a traveling spectacle, lacing his sloppy rhetoric and endless trolling with references to “hoaxes,” “the blacks,” “bad hombres,” and the like. Biden’s audiences are hearing a more formal style firmly set on using political leadership to tame national problems. The “bully pulpit” of the Presidency is back.

A legitimate fear for many of us that have a degree of regard for the institutional presidency and its rhetorical forms is that we are in an interregnum. Will 2024 coincide with a national mood when many Americans are again prepared to trash the institution’s norms?  Biden or others can work to help Americans see “the better angels of our nature.”  But, given America’s chronic disunity, there’s no guarantee anyone will heed that guidance.