Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

"We the People": The "Modern" Rhetorical Popular Address of the Presidents during the Founding Period

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

"We the People": The "Modern" Rhetorical Popular Address of the Presidents during the Founding Period

Article excerpt

This article examines the usage of popular address rhetoric within all the State of the Union Addresses to determine whether presidents have consistently used this rhetorical tool, or whether the introduction of going public is indeed a "modern" development that was little used in the rhetorical past of the presidency. By looking at instances in which the president identifies himself with the people, Congress, or as president, the author finds that many formerly "traditional" presidents exhibit "modern" tendencies, which suggests inconsistencies with the "traditional/modern" divide that is a commonly utilized paradigm in presidential study.

Keywords: rhetoric; political communication; state of the union; modern presidency; traditional presidency; popular address

The modern-day State of the Union Address is undeniably a rhetorical tool that presidents today use to convey their thoughts, propose their own programs, communicate with the public, and set the tone for new administrations. On the eve of January 29, 2002, George W. Bush delivered a State of the Union Address in an atmosphere like the nation had not seen in almost sixty years. On the heels of September 11, 2001, and the deaths of nearly three thousand individuals, the president spent more than half of the State of the Union Address proposing plans to fight domestic and foreign terrorism.

While addressing terrorism on many different levels, he also addressed his audience at many different levels. One of these was speaking as one of the people; he addressed the duties of Congress and spoke to the obligations of the people of the United States. He identified himself as one of the people of America, proposing, "We [the people of the United States] will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction. We will develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect America and our allies from sudden attack." The average citizen did not have the ability to develop and deploy security missile systems, yet the president spoke as one of the people, attempting to build support for the particular policy. He also identified himself as the leader of the country, referencing policy initiatives that he would like to see passed by thie Congress. He explained that "our first priority must always be the security of our nation, and that will be reflected in the budget I send to Congress. My budget supports three great goals for America" (my emphasis is added for all of the following rhetorical analyses of the State of the Union). This was a plan of attack and defense not developed by Congress, but speaking with the authority of the office of the presidency of the United States, Bush passed down policy that he hoped would be agreed upon quickly.

The President and Rhetorical Leadership

The variety of rhetoric exhibited by George W. Bush in the 2002 State of the Union Address, as well as the appeal to different levels of the audience to achieve his goals, is no strange shock to the listening ears of the American community, or to scholars who study rhetoric and political communication. Indeed, this is the "rhetorical leadership" that presidency and political communication scholars alike have engaged for years. For it is "with words minds are changed, votes acquired, enemies labeled, alliances secured, unpopular programs made palatable, and the status quo suddenly unveiled as unjust and intolerable" (Rodgers 1987, 4). It is the "sound of leadership" that originates at the junction of the office of the presidency and the presentation of policy proposal or political communication. Roderick Hart (1987, 5) explained that "presidents exert influence over their environment only by speaking, and it is largely through speaking their environment responds to them." It is not enough to see presidential speech as attempting leadership however. Because of station and authority, when the president speaks, his "public speech no longer attends the process of governance-it is governance" (p. …

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