Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Presidency and Image Management: Discipline in Pursuit of Illusion

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Presidency and Image Management: Discipline in Pursuit of Illusion

Article excerpt

"Presidential government is an illusion.... " Heclo and Salamon (1981, 1).

A triumphant president lands in a jet on an aircraft carrier, to celebrate with loyal troops a stunning victory over a tyrannical despot. The sailors greet him with boisterous cheering, and he gives a speech from the deck as the sun sets perfectly in the Pacify, the last golden rays of the sun illuminating a patriotic banner reading "Mission Accomplished."

In the midst of a photo opportunity with Florida second graders about reading, a president is told in whispers by his chief of staff that the second tower at the World Trade Center has been hit by a terrorist attack. As two other hijacked planes speed towards Washington, the confused president picks up "The Pet Goat," and stays on photo-op autopilot for at least seven long minutes, chatting about goats and literacy (Paltrow 2004).

Two images of the same president, George W. Bush, illustrate the challenges of presidential image management in the 24-hour video era. One shows the president in a carefully planned setting of patriotism, victory, masculinity, and daring. The other shows a president taking no actions, making no decisions, as crucial minutes tick away. The Bush administration's success at image management is demonstrated by the fact that most Americans have seen the unprecedented carrier landing, while almost none have seen the complete footage of Bush complimenting Ms. Daniels's children on their reading abilities while the towers burned.

The image of the president, the impression Americans have of their chief executive as a leader and a human being, is vitally important to the success of any modern president. Public opinion about the personal characteristics of a leader has been seen as part of successful governance since before Pericles, and it is certainly present in the long history of the American presidency. This essay will briefly explore how presidential images are created and assess how the Bush image managers are doing at their task. It will conclude by raising questions about the future of presidential image management.

The Components of Presidential Image

What is image? It is both truth and lie, both accurate perception and the gap between reality and perception. It is not policy or substance. It is, however, connected to both. Image is built up day by day, slowly accreting sediment at the bottom of the lake of public opinion. Images can be startlingly resilient, in part because of the media's tendency to reinforce whatever the public image has become. At a certain point in a presidency, it becomes easier to change policy than it is to change image, for this very reason. As one of the great presidential image managers, Reagan aide Michael Deaver, observed, "in the television age, image sometimes is as useful as substance" (Waterman, Wright, and St. Clair 1999, 53).

The public image of a president is produced in a complex interaction among four elements: the "reality" of the president's character, actions, and policies; the image management of his staff; the attempted redefinitions of his political opponents; and the cacophony of media assessments of the man in the White House. Together, they create the inchoate and shifting image within the collective minds of Americans.

The "reality" that is the supposed root of image begins with the president's character, talents, worldview, and style. It also encompasses, in the no-privacy modern era, such things as family life and sexual behavior. The president's policies and political background are relevant as well, to the extent that they color the public's perception of the president as a man. Policies that are seen as mean spirited, thoughtless, or dangerous have all affected the personal image of presidents. It also includes his physical appearance, as well as his diction and his accent. Consider how the exigencies of image politics limit who can actually be president. …

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