Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

The End of the Rhetorical Presidency?

No one will look at the output of the West Wing in the last four years for words of inspiration.

I’ll leave it to others to sort out the politics of our disheveled presidential campaign.  But we already have more than enough evidence to examine the ruins of something called “the Rhetorical Presidency.” The idea loosely encompasses the norms and traditions that have usually governed the occupants of the White House, at least since the Presidency of FDR. The Rhetorical Presidency includes the public statements and direct addresses made by the figure we used to call the “leader of the western world.” There may have always been a bit of hubris in that name.  But it suggests that the communications coming from the White House were often meant to represent the ideals of governance in a democracy.

We acquired some wonderful traditions from occupants who came in the last century, including Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. All are part of a tradition of using the office to urge the nation to focus on issues beyond their own personal interests. Think of inaugurals, state of the union address, oval office addresses, responses in times of tragedy, and formulations of progressive actions that could be effectively interpreted to the nation.

Generally, the Rhetorical Presidency represents a desire to weave the nation together as a national community sharing common goals, and it has fulfilled that ideal by leaving a legacy of public rhetoric that is more inclusive than divisive, more focused on shared ideals rather than divided loyalties, and usually resolute in not using the “bully pulpit” to demonize or denigrate other Americans.

Trump has used his office to demonize enemies and exercise his voracious appetite for fantasy over policy.

You can see where I’m going with this. If the condition of the physical structure of the White House could represent the current state of the Rhetorical Presidency, we would have to imagine a building ready to be condemned. Its columns facing Lafayette Park would be buttressed by metal scaffolding. Some of the tall windows would be broken and covered with bare plywood. Raw plaster would cover expanses well beyond the porticos. And badly fitted blue tarps covering leaks in the West Wing’s roof would also contribute to the look of an institution that has seen better days. This is the Trump legacy. More than any other modern leader of this republic he has used his rhetorical power mostly to demonize enemies and exercise his voracious appetite for fantasy over policy. The United States Printing Office issues a nicely-bound annual Public Papers of the Presidents for libraries. But no one will look at the output of the West Wing in the last four years for inspiration. If the best presidential rhetoric suggested fair-minded and moral leadership, the recent inability of the current holder to even condemn white supremacy groups speaks to how diminished this vital feature of the Presidency has become.

Not long ago a President was the first mental construct children had of their government. It was safe to allow them to listen to his (and someday her) words. To be sure presidents could have bouts of temper. Harry Truman wrote angry letters, and then never mailed them. John Kennedy mostly confined his public anger to a hapless steel industry trying to raise prices in the midst of high inflation. And Richard Nixon said a lot in private but taped that “decent” family papers in the 1970s couldn’t print. But to a person, they tended to use their public utterances to speak to the shared aspirations of the nation.  Even in the already hopeless early years of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson could still rise to the occasion and scold his Southern mentors hesitating on legislating for true racial parity. On the evening of March 15, 1965, Johnson told a special meeting of Congress the time had long passed to approve a Voting Rights Act with teeth. It was a long speech that was a national lesson in tolerance, ending with a phrase associated with Martin Luther King:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

This was a very imperfect man still able to find the right words  to push an imperfect nation to do the right thing. That is what the Rhetorical Presidency could be about.

I miss those days.

Excerpt: LBJ’s Voting Rights Speech “The American Promise”

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson calls on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Whole speech available here:

The Feds Say its Safe**

We’ve recently had cabinet members who knew less than your uncle Fred about nuclear power, infectious diseases or airline safety. 

A recent item in the New York Times noted that the EPA has reversed itself and declared that a pesticide chlorpyrifos is safe for children.  This was after another agency, the CDC, reversed itself on how easily Covid-19 is passed to others in open air. These odd reversals follow months of ominous decisions made by regulatory agencies to ignore or loosen standards for drinking water, meat packers, protection of federal lands and automobile efficiency. They add up to an eyebrow raising collection of rulings that suggest that this crop of agency leaders is mostly taking long lunches and trying to not notice the hazards they are enabling.

It’s also a good moment to reconsider whether our government truly has our backs on workplace and product safety, the protection of natural resources and the promotion of best public health practices. You’ve probably heard that there is this virus going around.

My own inclination these days is to put a mental asterisk next to any report issued by a federal agency.  I also try to remember to give a second look at products that were purchased in the belief that someone had deemed them relatively safe.

It’s not that the regulatory agencies aren’t filled with good people. They clearly are. And some agencies like the CDC are (were?) arguably monuments to the best that any government has done to watch out for the health of its citizens.  But it is clear career professionals are now not always allowed to do their work without political interference.  The Trump administration has its own ideas about where hurricanes are going to hit, whether it’s safe to put our children in schools and whether there is anything happening to warrant cutting green house gases.


Many of these agencies were once crown jewels of governmental responsiveness.

In truth, the President has appointed men and a few women who are ill-equipped to respect the mission and history of the agencies they are ostensibly managing. Units as diverse as the Justice Department, Post Office, the Department of Education and OSHA are now managed by political appointees that often muzzle their vastly more knowledgeable employees. We’ve even had cabinet members who knew less than your clueless uncle Fred about their agency’s domains such as nuclear power or the hazards of fracking for oil.  Recent actions especially by the Attorney General have shown an appalling lack of judgment about judicial independence.

Many of these agencies were once the crown jewels of governmental responsiveness. To give one example, there’s no question we are all safer now than our grandparents because of the NTSB, which investigates airline and other transportation disasters. The NTSB’s investigators have been models for letting evidence take us to where it will, regardless of the wounded pride of pilots, airlines or plane makers.  We are now safer in the air than on our roads.

In some ways Trump’s entire laissez-faire approach to regulation was already losing its appeal before he took over. More than in past decades, many Americans have noticed that we are often on our own to make estimates about food safety, workplace standards and environmental threats.

The FAA is close to recertifying the 737 Max after Boeing has made modifications to stop uncontrolled and rapid descents. Surely its pilots will be cautious, and Boeing must know that it can’t afford any more preventable accidents from its aged design. But I suspect regulatory laxity in the U.S. will mean that frequent flyers will be especially interested in whether European regulators certify the modified planes as airworthy.