The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency

The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency


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The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency by Justin S. Vaughn, Jennifer R. Mercieca

Campaign rhetoric helps candidates to get elected, but its effects last well beyond the counting of the ballots; this was perhaps never truer than in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Did Obama create such high expectations that they actually hindered his ability to enact his agenda? Should we judge his performance by the scale of the expectations his rhetoric generated, or against some other standard? The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency grapples with these and other important questions.

Barack Obama’s election seemed to many to fulfill Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the “long arc of the moral universe . . . bending toward justice.” And after the terrorism, war, and economic downturn of the previous decade, candidate Obama’s rhetoric cast broad visions of a change in the direction of American life. In these and other ways, the election of 2008 presented an especially strong example of creating expectations that would shape the public’s views of the incoming administration. The public’s high expectations, in turn, become a part of any president’s burden upon assuming office.

The interdisciplinary scholars who have contributed to this volume focus their analysis upon three kinds of presidential burdens: institutional burdens (specific to the office of the presidency); contextual burdens (specific to the historical moment within which the president assumes office); and personal burdens (specific to the individual who becomes president).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781623490423
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 02/28/2014
Series: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication Series , #24
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

JUSTIN S. VAUGHN is an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University. He is the coeditor of Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics. JENNIFER R. MERCIECA is associate department head and associate professor in the department of communication at Texas A&M University. She is the author of Founding Fictions.

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The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations

Establishing The Obama Presidency

By Justin S. Vaughn, Jennifer R. Mercieca

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2014 Texas A&M University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-121-5


Barack Obama and the Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations


"As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us," President Barack Obama observed in his February 24, 2009, Address Before a Joint Session of Congress. He believed that the world was "watching to see what we do with this moment, waiting for us to lead. Those of us gathered here tonight have been called to govern in extraordinary times. It is a tremendous burden, but it is also a great privilege, one that has been entrusted to few generations of Americans. For in our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill." That President Obama overtly recognized the "crossroads of history," the "moment," the "extraordinary times," indeed, the "tremendous burden" of his presidency, only one month into office is a comment both on the awesome responsibility of the presidency in general and upon Barack Obama's presidency specifically. Does the "moment" within which a president assumes office really affect their presidency, as Obama suggested? We believe that the answer is unequivocally yes; the moment within which a president takes office can matter and it can matter a great deal.

In President Obama's case, after nearly two years of promising "hope" and "change" on the campaign trail many Americans listening to his address that night, only a month after his inauguration, might well have believed that Obama's presidency really could reshape the world for good. Other Americans listening that night might have worried that the Obama presidency would reshape the world for ill. Still others might have wondered if the "extraordinary times"—the startling economic collapse of 2008 while America fought two wars abroad, coupled with increased political partisanship at home, America's diminished international reputation, a media environment that thrived upon division, and his historic role as the nation's first African American president—would hinder Obama's ability to lead and reshape the world at all. As Obama noted, leading in extraordinary times is both a "tremendous burden" and a "great privilege," for such moments of profound change demand heroic leadership in the face of insurmountable obstacles.

Along with President Obama in his February 24, 2009, Address, this volume asks: With the eyes of all the world watching, would Barack Obama be able to meet the high expectations of his office; would he be able to lead? In this chapter, we engage with two under-theorized notions of the presidency. So doing enables us to rethink how we judge presidential leadership: first, the expectations gap; and second the burden of the presidency. We argue that there is a rhetoric of presidential expectations, which has grown more heroic since the Progressive Era, and that these heroic expectations set up three kinds of presidential burdens: institutional burdens (the "glorious burdens" specific to the office of the presidency itself); contextual burdens (burdens specific to the historic moment within which the president assumes office); and, personal burdens (burdens specific to the man or woman who becomes president). We judge all presidents based upon both our heroic expectations and how they handle their various burdens, both shared and unique. Although many presidents have acknowledged the overwhelming expectations of the office, scholarly work on how those expectations are rhetorically constructed and how a president's burden affects his or her ability to lead remains largely undone. This is a regrettable lacuna because the president's burden forms an important element of the rhetorical context within which he or she operates, and thus ought to be understood.

The Rhetoric of Presidential Expectations

That Americans have what we can think of as "heroic expectations" for the president cannot be denied. We expect that the president will act at a minimum as the chief administrator, chief diplomat, chief legislator, chief magistrate, commander in chief, chief executive, ceremonial head of state, manager of the economy, party leader, and national leader—much more than the US Constitution prescribes. Yet Dennis M. Simon argues that "there is no corpus of work that constitutes the normal science on public expectations." He argues further that we could usefully distinguish between "image-based expectations" that "refer to both the desirable personal traits of presidents and how presidents should conduct themselves in office" and "performance-based expectations" that "focus upon what presidents should accomplish in office." Ray Price, an aide to Richard Nixon during his 1968 campaign for the presidency, demonstrates these "image-based expectations" in his warning to the eventual thirty-seventh president:

People identify with a President in a way they do no other public figure. Potential presidents are measured against an ideal that's a combination of leading man, God, father, hero, pope, king, with maybe just a touch of the avenging Furies thrown in. They want him to be larger than life, a living legend, and yet quintessentially human; someone to be held up to their children as a model; someone to be cherished by themselves as a revered member of the family, in somewhat the same way in which peasant families pray to the icon in the corner. Reverence goes where power is.

Additionally, empirical documentation supports Simon's claims about "performance-based expectations." For example, George Edwards and Stephen Wayne show that prior to his inauguration, significant percentages of Americans expected Barack Obama to satisfy a wide range of lofty tasks, including working effectively with Congress (89 percent), managing the executive branch wisely (84 percent), and fulfilling the proper role of the United States in world affairs (80 percent). These numbers were comparable to (and in some cases up from) the high expectations preceding George W. Bush's inauguration in January, 2001, when 81 percent of Americans hoped that Bush would set a good moral example for the nation; 78 percent hoped that he would use military force wisely; 74 percent expected him to work well with Congress; and 72 percent anticipated proper fulfillment of the United States in world affairs. These numbers compare with expectations of other recent presidents. In The Public Presidency, for example, George Edwards reported public opinion data that demonstrated sizeable majorities expected both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to accomplish policy tasks such as reducing unemployment and inflation, increasing government efficiency while reducing its cost, and dealing effectively with foreign policy while strengthening the national defense. In short, Americans have significant, often even unrealistic, expectations that the President of the United States has the power to control every facet of government. How did Americans come to expect so much from their presidents?

Scholarly consensus indicates these outsized expectations are a function of our cultural tradition of glorifying presidential memories, the distance between the presidency and most Americans that prevents them from actually knowing and understanding the office and those who hold it, and the way the presidency is presented in mediated forms to the public. Along these lines, Joseph Pika and John Maltese argued, "[W]e have glorified the memories of past presidents. The 'great presidents,' particularly those who took decisive action and bold initiatives, and even some of the 'not so great' are treated as folk heroes and enshrined in a national mythology." The effects of this enshrinement are exacerbated by the fact that most Americans will never have direct knowledge of the presidency; therefore, as Trevor Parry-Giles and Shawn Parry-Giles observe, "[F]or most citizens the presidency is only and always a representation, an image of a reality that can never be known." That the representation is glorified and heroic means that "for most Americans, the presidency is larger than life, transcending normal human limitations."

These representations and the expectations that they inculcate affect both the presidency in general and specific presidents in particular, thanks in part to media portrayals of presidential leadership and politics. Indeed, as Dennis M. Simon writes, they "are part of the historical inheritance that awaits every new president. They are, in a sense, imposed on every incumbent, regardless of party or ideology." Whether or not the president has heroic ambitions, "These expectations shape how presidents are covered by the press as well as how they are perceived and evaluated by elites and the mass public." Scholars have previously argued that we develop our expectations about the presidency through media portrayals, school textbooks, and political campaigns. We agree that all of these sources contribute to building presidential expectations, but we believe that scholars have not yet recognized the constitutive role that historical rankings of presidents play in setting presidential expectations and that the standards established by polls of presidential greatness, in turn, influenced how media, textbooks, and campaigns portray the presidency. We believe that these polls of presidential greatness help to define how we think about presidential leadership and, as we explain below, these polls constituted the "great president" as a heroic leader rather than as a competent chief executive.

"The "great Presidents," argued Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., in Life Magazine, "were strong Presidents. Each of them magnified the executive branch at the expense of the other branches of the government." Since Schlesinger Sr. began polling historians about presidential greatness in 1948, historians have consistently rated George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) "great." Experts have less consistently rated Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry S. Truman as "great" or "near great" and identified the bottom "failure" presidents as Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and (eventually) Richard Nixon. Yet despite these consistencies, the polls are controversial, with presidential fortunes rising and falling based upon new assessments of the past, current values, and pollsters' ideological leanings.

"How the hell can you tell?" asked President John F. Kennedy, when Schlesinger Sr. sent him the poll in 1962. "Only the president himself can know what his real pressures and real alternatives are. If you don't know that, how can you judge performance?" Schlesinger agreed that Kennedy had a point—to a degree—but that did not stop him, or his son Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., from continuing to inquire after presidential greatness. Stephen Skowronek believes that Progressive Era historians like the Schlesingers were "advocates of presidential power" who "left an indelible mark on the operations of American government." Progressive Era historians "wanted a more powerful presidency" and "they saw in [Franklin] Roosevelt's political skill and reform vigor a model for political leadership in modern America, and they distilled from his example the personal attributes likely to prove most valuable to incumbents in negotiating the governing challenges of the future." We could think of the "great" presidents as those who abided by the letter of the constitution, balanced the budget, did not interfere with setting national policies, or any other number of metrics. Yet we do not. Since the Progressive Era, we think of great presidents, as Schlesinger noted in 1948, "as strong presidents."

Schlesinger Sr. explained the 1962 poll results by arguing that historians judged presidents based upon a series of questions, all indicating a president's power and his success in changing history: "Did the President head the nation in sunny or stormy times? Did he exhibit a creative approach to the problems of statecraft? Was he the master or servant of events? Did he use the prestige and potentialities of the position to advance the public welfare? Did he effectively staff his key government posts? Didhe properly safeguard the country's interest in relation to the rest of the world? How significantly did he affect the future destinies of the nation?" Although Schlesinger Jr.'s 1973 work, The Imperial Presidency, decried the consolidation of power in the Nixon administration, Gene Healy and others have noted that "Schlesinger Jr.'s polls, like his father's, heavily favored imperial presidents." In 1948, 1962, and 1996, Americans were treated to the Schlesinger interpretation that great presidents were strong presidents who changed history. As Stephen Skowronek and others have shown, the consistency of the ratings across polls since 1948 demonstrates that the Schlesinger interpretation influenced the modern public's understanding of how a president should be judged, if not the precise judgments for particular presidents. Indeed, recent scholarship by Curt Nichols, which itself is predicated upon Skowronek's notion of "political time," has empirically evaluated and underscored this sentiment, showing that experts systematically "reward presidents who succeed in taking advantage of the opportunity to reorder—while also punishing those presidents helping to bring about enervated conditions as well as those failing to overcome them."

Even though empirical evidence seems to support the conclusion that polls of presidential greatness have tilted toward the "strong presidents," one might wonder how much of an influence these polls might really have in constituting the public's expectations of the presidency. After all, how many Americans read these polls, and how much weight do citizens and politicians give to the musings of historians? These are certainly difficult questions to answer with any certainty, but we argue that by providing a consistent standard by which to judge presidential "greatness," these polls helped to constitute if not the presidency, then at least expectations about the presidency. Polls of presidential greatness both reflected preexisting notions of who and what should count as excellence in office, as well as created benchmarks for others to judge future presidential excellence. It may seem tautological to argue that polls of presidential greatness constitute how we think of presidential greatness, but that is precisely what we mean. Polls of presidential greatness are a kind of rhetorical discourse that helps Americans to understand, position, frame, and delimit the presidency; the polls, in effect, have a constitutive function in our understanding of the American presidency. One way to understand these polls, then, is that through them Americans learned that the only great presidents were those "strong presidents" who consolidated power in the executive branch—or who acted as what scholars today call an "imperial president."

Heroic Expectations, Heroic Burdens

Not only did Progressive Era historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and his followers constitute the "great president" as the "strong president," but their efforts to increase the power of the executive branch reconstituted the president in the public imagination as the nation's hero rather than as the nation's chief executive. Progressive Era historians may not have intended to cultivate heroic expectations for the president, but it is hard to read Schlesinger Sr.'s approving description of the "great presidents" without also learning to applaud those heroic presidents who had the fortitude to expand the powers of the presidency, change history, and protect freedom and democracy: "Every one of these men left the executive branch stronger and more influential than when he found it. As a matter of course they magnified the powers expressly granted them by the Constitution and assumed others not expressly denied by it." Even if today we might question whether any one person has the agency to change the course of history, we seem to expect that the president would have the heroic ability to do just that. As Schlesinger Jr. explained in 1963, the heroic leader has the "Promethean responsibility to affirm human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history." He goes on to note, "A purposeful and vital democracy must rest on a belief in the potency of choice—on the conviction that individual decisions do affect the course of events." Promethean responsibilities ought not to fall on just anyone, for only a select few heroic humans can wield the power of the gods.

The longest standing account of the influence of heroic expectations on our understanding of the presidency is that of Thomas Cronin, who has found that school textbooks written since FDR and the influence of Progressive Era historians have portrayed presidents as omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, and moral, which in turn has enabled presidents to argue for more power. Scholars of presidential rhetoric like John Murphy and Trevor and Shawn Parry-Giles have argued that media portrayals of the president have become increasingly heroic in character. "Over the past decade an unusual number of movies and television episodes have portrayed the presidency," observed Murphy, and in these portrayals, like the school textbooks studied by Cronin, "the president is a good guy." Likewise, Jeffery C. Alexander has recently described presidential campaigning as the construction of hero narratives. "Struggles for big-time political power are narrated in terms of crisis and salvation," explained Alexander: "According to those who would be president, Americans face a unique moment in our history. There are unprecedented dangers and opportunities; a world-historical crisis domestically and internationally threatens to derail the nation's triumphant, mythical history. America has fallen on tough times." Therefore, all political campaigns are persuasive attempts in which candidates attempt to convince the American public that they are the right hero for the moment. Taken together, these studies demonstrate that the post-Schlesinger view of presidential greatness asks us to view the "great president" as a hero who protects human freedom and democracy by changing the course of history; these are not small expectations to be sure. Below we explain how acknowledging the rhetoric of heroic expectations can help us to make sense of three kinds of presidential burdens: institutional burdens, contextual burdens, and personal burdens. The notion that the presidency is a "glorious burden" is both widely accepted (the Smithsonian American History Museum's exhibit on the institution is titled "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," for example) and completely uninterrogated; indeed, the phrase stems from Stefan Lorant's epic 1968 The Glorious Burden: The American Presidency, in which Lorant neither defines the term nor traces its provenance. We attempt to do some of this work here.


Excerpted from The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations by Justin S. Vaughn, Jennifer R. Mercieca. Copyright © 2014 Texas A&M University Press. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xvii

Chapter 1 Barack Obama and the Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations Jennifer R. Mercieca Justin S. Vaughn 1

Chapter 2 A Lighthouse at the Crossroads: Barack Obama's Call for Agonistic Democracy Jay P. Childers 30

Chapter 3 The "We" in "Yes, We Can": Obama's Audience, the Audience's Obama, and Consubstantiality Eric Dieter 50

Chapter 4 Overcoming Institutional Burdens: President Obama's Rhetorical Leadership in His First Year Brandon Rottinghaus 67

Chapter 5 Where's the Media? President Obama, the Public, and News Coverage Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha 90

Chapter 6 The United States and the World: The Rhetorical Dimensions of Obama's Foreign Policy David Zarefsky 109

Chapter 7 Resetting America's Role in the World: President Obama's Rhetoric of (Re)Conciliation and Partnership Jason A. Edwards 130

Chapter 8 Obama's Two Bodies: A Study in American Economic Theology James Arnt Aune 151

Chapter 9 The Secular Messianic Style in Barack Obama's "Call to Renewal" Speech Catherine L. Langford 170

Chapter 10 The Exodus as Burden: Obama, Agency, and the Containment Thesis Dave Tell 191

Chapter 11 Picturing the Presidents: Obama and the Visual Politics of White House Art Cara Finnegan 209

Chapter 12 Michelle Obama, "Mom-in-Chief": Gender, Race, and Familialism in Media Representations of the First Lady Bonnie J. Dow 235

Epilogue: Carrying the Burden: How Barack Obama Both Embraced and Diminished Heroic Expectations Jennifer R. Mercieca Justin S. Vaughn 257

Contributor Biographies 265

Index 269

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