Current Issue Volume 19 | Nos. 2-3  

The Rhetorical Presidency After Twenty Years


A "WEAPON IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE": THE RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY IN HISTORICAL AND CONCEPTUAL CONTEXT | Jeffrey Friedman (link to pdf)
ABSTRACT: The Tulis thesis becomes even more powerful when the constitutional revolution he describes is put in its Progressive-Era context. The public had long demanded social reforms designed to curb or replace laissez-faire capitalism, which was seen as antithetical to the interests of ordinary working people. But popular demands for social reform went largely unmet until the 1910s. Democratizing political reforms, such as the rhetorical presidency, were designed to facilitate “change” by finally giving the public the power to enact social reforms. The resulting political order has created systemic pressure for policy demagoguery in place of rational deliberation. Mass political mobilization seems to be better achieved by contests of grand principle—which pit the well-meaning supporters of obviously needed reforms against “villains and conspirators"—-than by technical discussions of the possibly counterproductive effects of those reforms.

THE PRACTICAL ORIGINS OF THE RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY| Terri Bimes
ABSTRACT: As readers of The Rhetorical Presidency might expect, the Framers' remarks at the Constitutional Convention revealed a deep concern about popular political ignorance—and a desire to shield the new government from it. However, when it came to designing the presidency, the Founders seem to have been less intent on insulating sitting presidents from the mass public than on guarding the presidents' selection itself against elite factions that might take advantage of the public's ignorance. The resulting constitutional structure left the actual relationship between the president and the public open-ended. In short order, even the most restrained, patrician presidents took advantage of the opportunity to invoke, and to shape, public opinion—setting the stage for Andrew Jackson's, and his Democratic successors', more aggressive presidential populism.

DEMAGOGUERY, STATESMANSHIP, AND THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY| James W. Ceaser
ABSTRACT : Worries about “the rhetorical presidency” ultimately concern the danger of presidential demagoguery. As such, they echo an important theme of the Founders, who erected several barriers to the emergence of the president as demagogue in chief. In the ancient sources on which the Founders partly drew, the worry was the popular or pseudo-popular leader who seizes on widespread envies, fears, or hopes in the service of his political career—in contrast to the statesman, who pursues the public good and is, therefore, less interested in how to gain office than in how to use it. Later iterations emphasized the “superstitious,” “prejudiced,” or ideological nature of demagogic appeals. When Woodrow Wilson proposed that the president should seize the public-policy initiative in the name of the people, he sought to insulate the presidency from charges of demagoguery by arguing that no leader who spoke falsely on behalf of the people could expect to win the office. True adepts of the “progress” of public opinion, hence of the public good, are non-demagogic by definition. Although one is hard pressed to find an American president who can unambiguously be called demagogic, one does find demagoguery among presidential candidates, especially during their campaigns for party nomination.

THE LAYERED RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY | David A. Crockett
ABSTRACT : The Rhetorical Presidency, with its critique of Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power, exemplifies the sectarian strife that sometimes marks presidency studies. Yet Tulis's own layered-text metaphor, in which the rhetorical presidency is superimposed upon the earlier constitutional office, also suggests how different approaches to the presidency can build upon each other. To the most foundational approach—the constitutional level of analysis—can be added historical, institutional, organizational, and operational layers. This pyramidal model places Neustadt's operational analysis in an appropriate position: subordinate, but still valuable.

THE HYPER-RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY | John J. DiIulio, Jr.
ABSTRACT : During the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the Executive Office of the President became dominated by West Wing advisers who specialized in campaign politics, media management, and nonstop public communications. With record numbers of presidential appointees requiring no congressional approval, the Bush White House pursued partisan control of cabinet agencies. Even obscure federal bureaus were required to remain “on message.” The constitutional derangement about which The Rhetorical Presidency had warned has occurred. No matter who occupies the Oval Office in the future, the hyper-rhetorical presidency is here to stay.

THE IDEA OF AN UNRHETORICLA PRESIDENCY | Bryan Garsten
ABSTRACT : Jeffrey Tulis's The Rhetorical Presidency should not be read as a tale of decline. It is not a call for an “un-rhetorical” presidency so much as an exploration of the fundamentally uneasy place that popular rhetoric occupies in constitutional governments. Popular rhetoric is one way that executives exercise their prerogative power, and the dilemmas about rhetoric that Tulis exposes arise from a fundamental fact about prerogative power that all presidents must confront: Strong constitutional governments seem almost necessarily to grant their chief executives more discretionary authority than is consistent with the idea of constitutional government. Whatever rhetorical style or strategy a president adopts, he must respond in one way or another to this fact.

THE RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY AND THE CONTEMPORARY MEDIA ENVIRONMENT | Susan Herbst
ABSTRACT : Presidential rhetoric can matter immensely in moments of national crisis, and even during times of less melodrama. But the possibilities for rhetorical impact are slipping away from American presidents. In light of the multiplication of presidential spokespeople, commentators, on-line editors, and audiences, and the relative intimacy of other personalities viewed by those audiences, one might posit that “presidential speech,” as described and analyzed by Tulis, is hurtling toward its demise. Tulis's important thesis may therefore need some serious updating.

A RHETORICAL JUDICIARY, TOO? | Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Jeffrey Gottfried
ABSTRACT : Into Jeffrey Tulis's argument that “the rhetorical presidency signals and constitutes a fundamental transformation of American politics” he inserts parenthetically the question, “Has the rhetorical presidency now given birth to the rhetorical judiciary?” Whether the rhetorical presidency birthed or simply predated the rhetorical judiciary is open to question. The existence of the rhetorical judiciary is not. Since the publication of The Rhetorical Presidency, judges and their interlocutors have ratified one of the insights that grounded Tulis's question, while challenging another. They have borne out his fear that judges would increasingly respond to attack; his worry about the vacuity of confirmation hearings for those nominated to the Supreme Court, however, has not been similarly confirmed.

PPRESIDENTS' PARTY AFFILIATIONS AND THEIR COMMUNICATIN STRATEGIES | Mel Laracey
ABSTRACT : More than half of all pre-twentieth century presidents communicated with the public on policy matters. Some gave speeches or wrote public letters and messages, while others utilized the facade of a presidential newspaper. The partisan affiliations of the presidents who communicated with the public suggest that even before the full articulation of the concept of the “rhetorical” presidency by Woodrow Wilson, there was underlying disagreement among American political leaders about the proper role of the public in influencing public policy—and of the role of the president in influencing public opinion.

THE RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY AND THE PARTISAN ECHO CHAMBER | Nicole Mellow
ABSTRACT: The rise of a partisan Congress can aggravate some of the pathologies of the rhetorical presidency identified by Jeffrey Tulis: reckless policy production, and the resulting public disillusionment with an overpromising government. In some cases, such as the debate over the invasion of Iraq, the unified ranks of the president's party amplify the president's simplistic rhetoric, reducing policy deliberation and aggravating public disappointment when reality turns out to be more complex. When combined with divided government, however, partisanship can work to produce deliberative compromises that mitigate these pathologies, as exemplified by the welfare-reform legislation enacted by a Republican Congress under a Democratic president in 1996.

THE RHETORICAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE PRESIDENCIES | Sidney M. Milkis
ABSTRACT: The modern presidency emerged not from an effort to escape constitutional propriety, as Tulis argues, but, rather, to emancipate presidents from the localized political parties of the nineteenth century, which had come to be viewed as sites of provincial and corrupt forms of popular rule. As the troubled tenure of George W. Bush suggests, contemporary presidents are torn between the public expectation that they stand apart from party politics and act as the chief executive of the administrative state; and their role as party leaders, which links them to political allies in Congress and loyalists in the electorate. In its contribution to the development of a “new” national programmatic party system, the Bush administration reveals the potential for a novel, disturbing meld of party and administration, in which presidents seek to exploit the powers of the modern executive office for partisan gain.

THE PUZZLE OF THE RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY | Thomas L. Pangle
ABSTRACT : Jeffrey Tulis's classic study traces the central dilemmas of today's presidency to Woodrow Wilson's invention of the full-blown “rhetorical presidency”: a radicalized version of Theodore Roosevelt's essential rhetorical supplement to the Founders' inadequate conception of the office. But what is Tulis's teaching as to how we ought to evaluate this transformation? Tulis shows that our system suffers from a profound constitutional contradiction, with attendant deleterious consequences for our civic life; and he spotlights major virtues of TR's “middle way.” What, then, holds Tulis back from endorsing that “moderate” way as superior, even in principle, to the Wilsonian system under which we now live?

PRESIDENTIAL RHETORIC FROM WILSON TO "W": POPULAR POLITICS MEETS RECALCRITANT REALITY | Richard M. Pious
ABSTRACT : With the publication of Jeffrey Tulis's The Rhetorical Presidency, Woodrow Wilson's contribution to a major transformation in the American presidency—and in American politics—came to be recognized. But while Wilson believed that the danger of presidential demagoguery was overrated, forms of demagoguery that he underestimated have undermined the legitimacy of America's presidential democracy, in both its Wilsonian, plebiscitary form; and in the rule by decree to which presidents sometimes turn when their rhetoric does not suffice. The basic problem that Wilson overlooked is the mismatch between effective rhetoric and what can actually be accomplished, even by the most popular of presidents.

WHEN THE PRESIDENT SPEAKS, HOW DO THE PEOPLE RESPOND? | Paul J. Quirk
ABSTRACT : Tulis's critique of popular presidential leadership raises several questions about public opinion: Do modern, rhetorically inclined presidents influence the public? What types of presidential rhetoric might, in principle, mislead or manipulate the public? And is the net result that the people are led into error and distortion in their policy opinions? The public-opinion literature, which has assiduously documented the public's ignorance about politics and policy, might seem, at first glance, to offer grounds for an unequivocal “yes” to the third question. But most scholars of public opinion discount public ignorance and defend an optimistic view of the citizenry's political competence. The more convincing arguments and evidence, however, support more critical views. There is ample reason to worry about the consequences of policy making driven by popular rhetoric, and thus to consider whether any remedies for plebiscitary democracy might be found.

ALLEGORIES OF READING TULIS | Diane Rubenstein
ABSTRACT : Jeffrey Tulis's The Rhetorical Presidency is deceptively titled. It is not about rhetoric or political symbolism or even about the American presidency as such, as were many postmodern studies produced in the Reagan era. Rather, Tulis re-situates rhetoric: a minor theme in a story about the presidency becomes an important avenue into profound questions of political order and republican governance. Like Tulis, I approach my thesis obliquely; I distinguish his from other, seemingly similar, works (and realign him with other rhetorical readers, such as Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida) to underscore what I see as the book's lasting legacy: its explication of the double binds and central paradoxes of republican governance (seen, for example, in presidential prerogative), and its articulation of the role of rhetoric in institutional transformation.

"PUBLICITY" AND THE PROGRESSIVE-ERA ORIGINS OF MODERN POLITICS | Adam D. Sheingate
ABSTRACT : The Rhetorical Presidency places great importance on the transformative power of political ideas. For Tulis, Progressive ideas informed the rhetorical practices of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—practices that reconstituted the American presidency. They did so, in part, by trading on the ambiguous nature of the concept of “publicity”—which at once evoked liberal ideals of public deliberation and transparency, and modern practices of manipulative communication. In turn, the new practices of publicity revolutionized not only the American presidency, but American politics as a whole.

THE RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY IN RETROSPECT | Jeffrey K. Tulis
ABSTRACT : The Rhetorical Presidency is not, principally, a book about rhetoric or the presidency. Rather, rhetoric and the presidency are windows on the American constitutional order as a whole. Critics have greatly enhanced the historical narrative but have not undermined the principal historical and theoretical claims. Recent changes in the American polity are best understood as exacerbations of problems described in the book, rather than as fundamental alterations of our political world. Contemporary political pathologies can still be diagnosed as a product of the contending imperatives of the new constitutional order that has been layered on top of the old one. And while problems may be attenuated by a creative melding of the old and new orders, they cannot be solved within the confines of American constitutionalism, as it has been traditionally understood.