Tag Archives: presidential leadership

red white blue bar

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.

red white blue bar

The Conciliation Imperative

[Another national election is taking place. It’s a good time to remember that we will have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that has dominated too much American rhetoric. The challenger this time seems more open to seeking common ground with political foes. But the President still seems locked into a binary mindset dominated by the abuse of other Americans as scapegoats. He appears to not have the emotional intelligence to change. And it is our collective problem that this characteristic is one source of his popularity.]

Lawrence Wright’s book on the intense negotiations that led to the historical Camp David Accords is a good indicator of what is so frequently missing in our politics. Thirteen Days in September (2014) documents the efforts of President Jimmy Carter to find a way out of the chronic Arab/Israeli impasse, working with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat as his partners.  Without doubt the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize had—and still has—the instincts of a peacemaker.  By contrast, prior to the negotiations in 1978, Begin and Sadat had contributed more than their share to the blood-letting that still occurs along borders that surround the Sinai Peninsula. In modern usage, they might have justifiably been labeled terrorists. And yet Carter put his already shaky presidency on the line to cloister these foes in the mountains of western Maryland on the outside chance that they could be induced to produce a lasting peace.

It was a risk and an act of political courage, even though new problems developed in the years that followed. Presidents and congressional politicians rarely put themselves on so uncertain a course unless there are guaranteed outcomes.  And that’s a problem.  A politician who won’t risk failed efforts at conciliation is little more than a poseur: a pretender to the role of a leader.

To be sure, the recent brokered deal between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is a welcome step. And yet the region still festers, with most of the Muslim world hostile to American leadership.  And the agreements seem more strategic than something closer to a grand gesture of conciliation that would help resolve the issue of a Palestinian homeland.


Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is now our preferred rhetoric.

The current American challenge of negotiating differences is made worse because of an old national habit of honoring heroes who are supposedly unsullied by the impulse to compromise. We cherish the self-made person, the inner-directed leader, the lone single agent who rejects anything less than what they brought to the bargaining table.  This preference plays out in the narrative tropes that show up in our love of John Wayne’s film characters, or James Bond’s free-style execution of his own form of foreign policy.  We like our heroes to be dominant, assertive, fearless and ready to bolt at the first suggestion that they might make a concession. And so they continue to come in waves of narratives that celebrate intellectual unilateralism: everyone from cinema superheroes, to larger-than-life thinkers like Apple’s Steve Jobs.  Even the small screen occasionally cherishes the mini-rebellions of office workers stuck in the anonymity of drab cubicle farms.

Our preference for the defiant loner has grown so great that words to describe the team player now read like labels of surrender.  “Compromise,” “concession,”  “conciliation,” and “mediation” all carry the odor of appeasement.  And so our interest in performing the rhetoric of defiance is self-defining;  its a cheap way to create a persona suggesting “strong values” and ostensibly settled thinking.  Even history’s great conciliators—among them: Nelson Mandela, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln—seem more distant than the characters we conjure up to illustrate “decisive” and “uncompromising” leadership.  One can only guess at what former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had in mind when he called Russia’s increasingly dictatorial Vladimir Putin a true “leader.”  The statement is a reminder that unearned certainty can be the perfect sign of a fool.

If we are wondering where to begin, I suggest that we reconsider the kinds of people we want to serve in legislative offices. Deliberative bodies require deliberators. And yet our Congress is filled with too many self-styled media stars who show little interest in finding ways to attain mutual consent. They show up for their close-ups in hearings.  But they are often absent from caucus rooms where differences must get hammered out.

Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is now our preferred rhetoric. It’s a recommendation that especially holds for our chosen leaders, but also for most of us as we weigh the need for ideological purity against the more functional objective of solving problems.