Rhetorical Presidency

Rhetorical presidency is a term used to describe the governance and communication style of presidents in the United States in the 20th century. The term rhetorical presidency was examined in detail by political scholar Jeffrey K. Tulis, who compared and identified the differences between the 19th century constitutional presidency in the United States and the 20th century governance modes.

In line with these findings, Samuel Kernell (1997) drew the conclusion that the modern U.S. president has to "go public" in order to fulfill his plans. In the same vein, Richard Neustadt (1960) commented that the president has to bargain with the Congress and the public. According to modern political science, speeches appear to be at the core of U.S. presidency.

The term rhetorical presidency appeared first in 1981 in an article published by Tulis together with political scientists James Caeser, Glen E. Thurow and Joseph Bessette in the Presidential Studies Quarterly. In his book The Rhetorical Presidency (1987), Tulis further elaborated on the phenomenon. His central thesis was that 20th century presidents have to persuade the general public rather than the Congress of the viability of their policies.

Tulis's research showed that Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) laid the foundations of rhetorical presidency as a trend in American political life. Roosevelt, who was the 26th U.S. President in office from 1901 to 1909, belonged to the reform movement Progressivism. Roosevelt offered Americans what he called a "Square Deal" to improve their standard of living. He appealed to the people with his exuberant personality and different roles in his life, which included a hunter, explorer and soldier. In foreign policy, Roosevelt followed the maxim that one should "speak softly and carry a bid stick." Wilson was another representative of the Progressive Movement. He was elected the 28th President of the United States and governed between 1913 and 1921.

Tulis discussed how the "popular or mass rhetoric" of Roosevelt and Wilson was a big influence in American political life and believed that the president was expected to be a leader in expressing opinions on important subjects. By comparison, the 19th century presidential rhetoric was primarily official and ceremonial. Communication during this time was mainly in a written form. The presidents' public speeches were rare and were not generally well accepted by the public.

In the 20th century, the role of the president became more complex as the role went beyond the duties laid down in the Constitution. Article II, Section II of the U.S. Constitution reads: "He [the president] shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." For example, Roosevelt relied on the "bully pulpit" to boost the profile of the president's institution and to receive the general public's support for his policies. Wilson for his part justified the shift in paradigm towards the oral communication with a governance theory which put the U.S. president in the limelight.

Researchers argue that the presidential rhetoric has been for decades a major factor of leadership in the United States. Some of the rhetorical masterpieces include John F. Kennedy's and Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural speeches, the voting rights address of Lyndon Johnson and the speech on Atoms for Peace delivered by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Researcher Roderick P. Hart concluded that in the 21st century, U.S. presidents speak increasingly in public. In contemporary politics, the presidents' speeches cover all topics of public interest - from international affairs to the domestic economy. An important tool of political influence, presidential rhetoric has become more assertive, more democratic and more conversational.

Different media have played a different role in presidential rhetoric over time. Between 1800 and 1860, presidents spoke to the public through newspapers. From the 1920s, the radio adopted an important role in political life. In 1924, the Democratic Party broadcast their national convention on the radio. In contemporary society, both televised addresses and the Internet are crucial to policy communication.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush
Elvin T. Lim.
Oxford University Press, 2008
Speaking to the People: The Rhetorical Presidency in Historical Perspective
Richard J. Ellis.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1998
Presidential Communication: Description and Analysis
Robert E. Denton Jr.; Dan F. Hahn.
Praeger, 1986
Librarian’s tip: Part I "The Rhetorical Presidency"
Political Communication: Politics, Press, and Public in America
Richard M. Perloff.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Presidential Rhetoric" and Chap. 7 "Presidential Rhetoric: Genres and Impact"
Pitching the Presidency: How Presidents Depict the Office
Paul Haskell Zernicke.
Praeger Publishers, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "The 'President' and Rhetoric" and Chap. 3 "Presidential Rhetoric"
Evolution of the Modern Rhetorical Presidency: Presidential Presentation and Development of the State of the Union Address
Teten, Ryan L.
Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2, June 2003
Conceptualizing and Measuring White House Staff Influence on Presidential Rhetoric
Vaughn, Justin S.; Villalobos, Jose D.
Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4, December 2006
The White House Speaks: Presidential Leadership as Persuasion
Kathy B. Smith; Craig Allen Smith.
Praeger Publishers, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "The Presidency in Rhetorical Crisis"
Reconciling Free Trade, Fair Trade, and Interdependence: The Rhetoric of Presidential Economic Leadership
Delia B. Conti.
Praeger, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. One "Presidential Rhetoric on Trade: A Historical Overview"
Five Trends in Presidential Rhetoric: An Analysis of Rhetoric from George Washington to Bill Clinton. (Articles)
Lim, Elvin T.
Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2, June 2002
The Clinton Legacy
Colin Campbell; Bert A. Rockman.
Chatham House, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Campaigning Is Not Governing: Bill Clinton's Rhetorical Presidency"
Franklin D. Roosevelt's Rhetorical Presidency
Halford R. Ryan.
Greenwood Press, 1988
Harry S. Truman: Presidential Rhetoric
Halford R. Ryan.
Greenwood Press, 1993
Eisenhower's War of Words: Rhetoric and Leadership
Martin J. Medhurst.
Michigan State University Press, 1994
In a Perilous Hour: The Public Address of John F. Kennedy
Steven R. Goldzwig; George N. Dionisopoulos.
Greenwood Press, 1995
Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator
Kurt Ritter; David Henry.
Greenwood Press, 1992
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