Tag Archives: presidential rhetoric

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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.

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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.