As we come off of a heated 2012 election already considering the implications for 2016, it’s hard to imagine a day and age in which people didn’t analyze every word that came out of a candidate’s mouth.  By just looking at the last six months, we have seen keynote speeches at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, televised presidential and vice presidential debates, Obama’s acceptance speech and Romney’s speech following his defeat… we’ve seen the President, as well as a number of other political actors, speak on Inauguration Day, and we certainly cannot forget the State of the Union address, most notably Marco Rubio’s rebuttal.  No matter what events we bring into play, the level of attention seems to be unwavering — when it comes to the rhetoric of any political actor, the media will undoubtedly have the words of a candidate analyzed by the time of the next news segment.

But it hasn’t always been this way.  While today’s era preaches that communication with the people falls along the most important aspects of the presidency, most of the presidents preceding Jimmy Carter rarely spoke to the people, preferring communications between branches of the government (Ceaser).  What is now the State of the Union (formerly called the Annual Address) was virtually the only speech delivered to the people — and from Presidents Jefferson to Wilson, the speech wasn’t even delivered in person.  When a president did come before the people, “very few were domestic ‘policy speeches’ of the sort so common today, and attempts to move the nation by means of an exalted picture of a perfect ideal were almost unknown” (Ceaser).

Flash forward to Barack Obama’s 2012 acceptance speech:

“But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future. We want our kids to grow up in a country where they have access to the best schools and the best teachers.

A country that lives up to its legacy as the global leader in technology and discovery and innovation, with all the good jobs and new businesses that follow.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this — this world has ever known.”

So how did we get to the age of the rhetorical presidency?

As discussed in our Tim Cook reading Governing with the News, it comes down to the fact that the media and the presidency have essentially grown to feed off of each other.

Presidential Studies Quarterly explains this by noting the distinction (and major difference) between constitutional government (the way the founders established our government) and government by assembly (what our government has become), a kind of government with “TV ‘speaking’ to the President and the President responding to the demands and moods that it creates” (Ceaser).  He goes on to say that the consequence of this is in an inability for the President to portray a sense of stability in his administration—this results in the constant pressure to respond to the moods of the media rather than allowing his policy victories to speak for themselves.

A former aide for the Kennedy administration predicted that we would soon reach this age where voters look for impressive rhetoric above all else, as he stated, “It will be less important in years to come for presidents to work out programs and serve as administrators than it will be for presidents through the means of television to serve as educational and psychic leaders” (Ceaser).

Once again, we flash forward to a glimpse of the 2012 election in which an OpEd in Forbes magazine discussed a mathematical model that could predict the winner of elections by analyzing the word usage in campaign speeches—in September of 2012, the model predicted that Obama would win the election just based on the word choice in his speeches.  The model showed that statements such as Obama’s line “the election four years ago wasn’t about me; it was about you” at the Democratic National Convention proved to be a “solidly winning” one for voters (Narain).  Given that this line, nor any of the other trigger words that the model referred to as “winning,” had nothing to do with policy, it would appear as though many people are looking for the aforementioned “educational and psychic leader” in a president.   Additionally, a study in the American Journal of Political Science revealed that in the past, research suggested that impressive presidential speeches may result in a very short-lived popularity increase; now, more modern studies show that “major speeches boost popularity, foreign trips have no impact, and domestic trips hurt popularity” (Cohen).

With the media’s increasing ability to deliver news by the minute, there lies a larger question of how this will affect the job description of the presidency.  The study in Presidential Studies Quarterly notes that the dichotomy of what we see and what we get are increasingly growing apart:

“We have perhaps passed beyond the point of naiveté where we shudder at exposés which reveal that the personal convictions of the President are written by someone else,” it says, “but it is worth noting the paradox that at a time when presidents are judged more by their rhetoric, they play less of a role in its actual formation.”

This idea strongly supports Alexander’s theory that politics is all about the performance from the beginning.  Furthermore, I think that we are entering into a time where people are even more willing to suspend their disbelief in the performance more so than Alexander first believed.  We will only be able to tell by the results of future campaigns… and of course, more speeches.


Ceaser, James W., Glen E. Thurow, Jeffrey Tulis, and Joseph M. Bessette. “The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 11.2 (1981): 158-65. Print.

Cohen, Jeffrey E. “Presidential Rhetoric and the Public Agenda.” American Journal of Political Science 39.1 (1995): 87. Print.

Narain, Chetan. “Speeches And Votes: How Obama’s Words Point To Victory.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 13 Sept. 2012. Web. 08 Mar. 2013. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/09/13/speeches-and-votes-how-obamas-words-point-to-victory/&gt;.


One thought on “The Increasing Role of Rhetoric in the Presidency

  1. Pingback: The Media Prism: How We See Politics | Talking Politics

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