Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Evolution of the Modern Rhetorical Presidency: A Critical Response

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Evolution of the Modern Rhetorical Presidency: A Critical Response

Article excerpt

In his study of presidential rhetoric, Teten (2003) asserts that contemporary State of the Union addresses evolved in the early twentieth century. They are shorter and use more inclusive language than the annual presidential addresses of the nineteenth century. Today, presidents use fewer words, as well as words such as we and our with greater frequency. According to Teten and others, these changes--defining the modern rhetorical presidency--occurred during the Woodrow Wilson administration, potentially because of Wilson's decision to resume the delivery of an annual spoken address to Congress rather than send a written communique.

Teten's conclusions are based on a sample of State of the Union addresses that may mask variation in the length and tone of the speeches, I analyze the text of all State of the Union addresses, allowing me to examine the full distribution of elements of presidential rhetoric over the past 217 years. Consequently, I am able to more clearly identify the periods of presidential rhetoric and locate the durable shift in contemporary presidential speech making. My analysis suggests that Wilson was more of a transitional figure, a president with rhetorical features before his time. Permanent changes in the State of the Union address occurred later during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. This change coincided with the increased use of technology by the president and Congress and the expansion of the audience for the State of the Union speech.

Three Eras of Presidential Rhetoric

In his recent work, Teten investigates rhetorical change in the early twentieth century. He states that he does not seek to resolve the debate over whether the modern rhetorical presidency began with Theodore Roosevelt (Gamm and Smith 1998; Kernell 2007; Milkis 1998) or with Woodrow Wilson (Tulis 1987). Instead, the author seeks to examine whether the rhetorical presidency is best divided in two, as it currently is, or whether another classification better fits the history of presidential speech making. Additionally, the author attempts to illuminate some specific areas in which presidential rhetoric has changed. These areas include the use of inclusive rhetoric and shorter speeches in the modern era as compared to the traditional era.

Many factors make the analysis of rhetoric problematic. Controlling for the audience and general tone of the speech is difficult, so Teten limits his analysis to State of the Union addresses based on the speech's constitutionally mandated nature and consistent audience (2003, 335). Further, text provides a large quantity of speeches. There are more than 200 addresses, and they are lengthy, totaling 1,769,516 words across 43 presidents. Teten simplifies his task by sampling 50 addresses, selected at random, oversampling for the time period between Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson because that is the time period generally addressed by scholars as the transition from the traditional to the modern rhetorical presidency.

Teten offers tests of two hypotheses with respect to rhetoric and the State of the Union address, The first hypothesis is that the total length of speeches has decreased in the modern era. To test this, he examines the total number of words in presidential speeches and observes an interesting finding, Early presidents gave short addresses, but starting with John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, the length of the annual address to Congress increased dramatically over the next 90 years, averaging between 15,000 and 20,000 words (Teten 2003, 340). Beginning with Woodrow Wilson in 1914, the number of words in the State of the Union address dropped sharply, never again passing the 10,000-word mark in the addresses sampled by the author. From this, Teten draws the inference that there are three rhetorical presidencies rather than two. He is cautious about claiming that Wilson deliberately altered presidential rhetoric, explaining that it may have been a function of Wilson delivering the address orally to Congress rather than in written form like his predecessors. …

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