Reading the Presidency

Advances in Presidential Rhetoric

by Stephen J. Heidt (Volume editor) Mary E. Stuckey (Volume editor)
©2019 Textbook VIII, 348 Pages


This edited collection explores ways to better understand the rhetorical workings of political executives, especially the United States president. Scholars of the presidency, rhetorical theorists and critics, and various authors examine the ways in which presidents use the institution, the media, and popular culture to instantiate, expand, and wield executive power.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Study of Presidential Rhetoric in Uncertain Times: Thoughts on Theory and Praxis (Stephen J. Heidt)
  • Going Public, the Rhetorical Presidency, and the Waning Utility of Metatheory
  • Presidents, Rhetoric, and the Quandary of Significance in the Absence of Metatheory
  • Chapter Summaries
  • Notes
  • Section One: Reading the President through Institutions
  • Chapter One: Cartographer-in-Chief: Maps in Televisual Addresses and the Cold War President as Geographic Educator (Timothy Barney)
  • Presidential Rhetoric and Critical Geopolitics
  • Kennedy, Laos, and the “Victim of Geography”
  • “As You See Here on the Map”: Nixon’s Cartography of Cambodia
  • The “Backyard” and Reagan’s Mapping of Central America
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Two: Reading the Presidency In Situ: Obama in Cuba and the Significance of Place in U.S. Presidential Public Address (Allison M. Prasch)
  • Reading U.S. Presidential Rhetoric In Situ
  • Obama in Cuba: (Re)Visions of a Post-Cold War Foreign Policy
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Three: The Other Presidential Rhetoric: Rhetorical Mobilization within the White House (Milene Ortega / Mary E. Stuckey)
  • The Panama Canal Treaties
  • Carter’s Communication
  • Magnifying the President’s Message
  • Fragmentation
  • Mobilization
  • Amplification
  • Conclusion: The President and the Presidency
  • Notes
  • Chapter Four: Genre-Busting: Campaign Speech Genres and the Rhetoric of Political Outsiders (Ryan Neville-Shepard)
  • Advancing Genre Studies: “Violators” versus “Outsiders”
  • Third Party Genre-Busting
  • Donald Trump’s Genre-Busting in the 2016 GOP Primary
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Five: The Rise of Comforter-in-Chief: Presidential Responses to Violence Since Reagan (Jay P. Childers / Cassandra C. Bird)
  • How Presidents Expand the Presidency
  • An Emergent Role
  • An Expanding Role
  • Jonesboro, Arkansas
  • Springfield, Oregon
  • Littleton, Colorado
  • An Established Role
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Section Two: Reading the Presidency through Interactions
  • Chapter Six: Obama’s Command: Chemical Weapons in Syria and the Global Duties of a Rhetorical Presidency (Ronald Walter Greene / Jay Alexander Frank)
  • The Rhetorical Presidency is an Ethical Machine
  • Command is an Ethical Technology
  • Command is a Distributive Technology
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Seven: Unpresidented: Articulating the Presidency in the Age of Trump (Blake Abbott)
  • An Unstable President
  • The Instability of the Presidential Subject
  • Articulating the Presidency
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Eight: Trump, Twitter, and the Microdiatribe: The Short Circuits of Networked Presidential Public Address (Stephen J. Heidt / Damien Smith Pfister)
  • Short Circuits of Deliberation
  • Trump, Twitter, and the Microdiatribe
  • Analyzing Presidential Rhetoric in a Digital Media Ecology
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Nine: Pioneers, Prophets, and Profligates: George W. Bush’s Presidential Interaction with Science (Leah Ceccarelli)
  • Scientists as Pioneers and Prophets
  • Scientists as Uncertain
  • Scientist as Immoral
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Ten: Negotiating the Limits of a Multiparty Democracy: Michelle Bachelet’s Rhetoric of Commitment (Belinda A. Stillion Southard)
  • Why Study Non-U.S. Presidential Rhetoric?
  • How to Study Non-US Presidential Rhetoric
  • Bachelet’s Life and Context
  • Bachelet’s Rhetoric of Commitment
  • Selection and Translation of Texts
  • Analysis: Committed to the Commitments of the People and the State
  • Conclusion: The Potential and Limits of a Rhetoric of Commitment
  • Notes
  • Section Three: Reading the Presidency through Interruptions
  • Chapter Eleven: The Debt Ceiling Debacle: Presidentialism as Cruel Optimism (Paul Johnson)
  • Presidentialism’s Effects and Appeal
  • Cruel Optimism and the Presidency
  • The Debt Ceiling Fight
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Twelve: The Discursive Antecedents to Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs (Joel M. Lemuel)
  • The Postmodern Turn in Presidential Address
  • Addiction in Forensic Discourse (1910s−1960s)
  • Addiction in Juridical Discourse (1880s−1960s)
  • Addiction in Medical Discourse (1880s−1960s)
  • Therapeutic Communities: The Spiritual Path to Recovery
  • Methadone Maintenance Therapy: The Pharmacological Path to Recovery
  • Addiction in Scientific Discourse (1960s–1970s)
  • Addiction in the Rhetoric of the Nixon Administration
  • Addiction as a Symptom of Civil Disorder: Echoes of Juridico-Forensic Discourse in Nixon’s Campaign Rhetoric
  • Addiction as a Public Health Problem: Echoes of Medico-Scientific Discourse in President Nixon’s Drug Policy Rhetoric
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Thirteen: Home-Making, Nation-Making: American Womanhood in Progressive Era Presidential Rhetoric (Leslie J. Harris)
  • Loci of Order and Home
  • Women, the Progressive Era, and Politics
  • Home and Presidential Rhetoric
  • Duties of and to Women
  • Conclusion: The Presidency and Women’s Place
  • Notes
  • Chapter Fourteen: White “Honky” Liberals, Rhetorical Disidentification, and Black Power during the Johnson Administration (Lisa Corrigan)
  • LBJ, Identification, and the Black Freedom Struggle
  • Fracturing the Coalitions: Black Power and White Liberals
  • (Dis)identification and Collective Action
  • LBJ and Black Power’s Disidentification
  • White Backlash and Black Power
  • Notes
  • Afterword: Reflections on Rhetoric and the Presidency (David Zarefsky)
  • Notes
  • About the Contributors
  • Series index

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This book found its inspiration in Mary Stuckey’s presidential rhetoric seminar. In the years since that ignominious foray into the study of presidential rhetoric, we have discussed, debated, and quarreled about many of the themes contained in this volume. Having finally decided to do something with our fervor for thinking about the presidency, this volume represents the outcome of that long-running conversation.

We are primarily grateful to our friend and conference dinner companion, Rob Mills, who was and is an indispensable part of many of our on-going arguments. We also thank the other members of that seminar, who are carrying on the conversation in their own ways.

We are also deeply indebted to the contributors to this volume. From inception to completion, they worked with us as we requested revisions, asked for additional information, and required patience. Through it all, they continued to believe in this project and the conversation it aims to further. This book would, literally, have been impossible without them.

The research for this book was supported by a Morrow Fund Endowment grant from the School of Communication and Multimedia Studies at Florida Atlantic University. We are deeply appreciative of all the ways our departments and universities have supported this work. Our gratitude goes first to Georgia State University, which was academic home to both of us for many years. Stephen ← vii | viii → is grateful for all the support he received from the faculty at FAU; he will finish this sentence as he sees fit. Mary thanks her colleagues at Penn State, and especially the department head, Denise Solomon, for what often seems like a magical academic environment.

We are also appreciate of the staff at Peter Lang who helped make this project a reality. We offer special thanks to Mary Savigar, Sophie Appel, Michael Doub, and Kathryn Harrison.

We would also like to thank each other. In inviting Stephen to co-edit this project, and indeed to take the lead on it, Mary knew he would do great work, but had no idea how much more than that he would contribute. Students always make us proud. But there aren’t words for how proud I am of this one, who has certainly schooled me, and become a very good friend. Stephen thanks Mary for throwing a good party.

Finally, we wish to thank Diana Barreto, to whom this book is dedicated. Her unwavering support for Stephen’s intellectual development, spanning from his years as a doctoral student to the present, has made this work possible. Without her, he would be lost.

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The Study of Presidential Rhetoric in Uncertain Times: Thoughts on Theory and Praxis


In 1996, Bruce Gronbeck declared that “electronic channels” had (or would) fundamentally alter the presidency and, in consequence, presidential rhetoric.1 Contending that “electronics changed the essential nature of the presidency,” Gronbeck identified three shifting “dynamics” that heralded a newly configured presidency “fundamentally different from the presidency as it has operated and been experienced in any other epoch.”2 Specifically, the rise of digital life “recast relationships between the presidency and its constituencies … enlarged the role of spectacle … [and] destroyed the traditional distance that has existed between leaders and the led.”3 Portending the ways digital life would capture public culture, Gronbeck heralded the rise of multimediated rhetoric, the speed at which that rhetoric would enter and exit public discourse, the increased importance ethos would play to the presidency in such a context, and the need to expand the definition of “presidential rhetoric” to include forms of presidential communication beyond those included in the official papers of the presidency.

We invoke Gronbeck’s work to open this volume for two reasons. First, Gronbeck was the founding editor of the book series that is publishing this volume. We find it appropriate to recognize his contribution to the study of presidential rhetoric, via trenchant insights into the shifting landscapes that define and bound presidential discourse and by his efforts to create space for scholars to publish and circulate work related to presidential rhetoric and political communication. ← 1 | 2 → Gronbeck is also an appropriate starting point, we believe, because in many respects his predictions about the presidency proved prescient. The rise of the Internet age shifted the context in which presidential discourse is constituted, uttered, and received. Advances in communication technology have enabled presidents to directly reach citizens, with advanced speed, about issues of national or personal importance. These shifts pose significant challenges for scholars seeking to make claims about the importance of presidential rhetoric, its significance inside and outside institutional contexts, and its deliberative function. While scholars have not abandoned their beliefs in the stability of presidential messages and the implications those messages have on publics and policy, recent trends have elevated concern about the utility of the rhetorical presidency thesis in a fragmented, digital media ecology.

The shifting media ecology is merely one component of an increasingly complex scene that frames and shapes the study of presidential rhetoric. At its base, the argument for the uniqueness of presidential rhetoric as a species of study—a separate speech genre unto itself—derives from the conviction in the universal importance of the presidency as an institution in a democratic culture. This assumption has, historically, implied that everything the president says matters.4 Fundamentally, studies of presidential address hinge upon an institutional logic of the presidency—that rhetorical situations demand presidential address, that presidential success depends on individual persuasive ability, and that the person who holds the office is the focal point for inquiry. As scholars of the presidency, we are concerned this institutional logic has distanced work on the president from other important, relevant trends in rhetorical theory. This distance between method and theory matters a great deal because contextual shifts have decentered the chief executive. The president no longer commands the attention he once enjoyed.5 Even as the person of the president remains a focal point for the mass public and the media, the nature and quality of that role is substantively different. And audiences of presidential address are increasingly diverse, fragmented, and heterogeneous, raising questions about the types of claims scholars can make about presidential rhetoric and its significance to political culture and public deliberation of policy issues. The audience problem is even thornier when considering transnational or foreign addresses and the myriad ways presidential speech is interpreted and reinterpreted by audiences difficult to identify and map.

Scholars of presidential rhetoric have not ignored the contextual complications and their impact on the types of claims available to be made about presidential speech. Yet, studies continue to measure presidents by the expectation their speech will lead to policy outcomes. Perhaps hamstrung by Roderick P. Hart’s claim that “public speech … is governance,” we believe scholars are grappling with how to articulate the significance of presidential address.6 Concerned the expectation that ← 2 | 3 → presidential address determines policy outcomes is not a useful guide for measuring what presidents do rhetorically, especially since presidents who once relied on public comments to help them accomplish their policy goals now increasingly rely on administrative mechanisms,7 we have crafted this volume as an initial effort to think about how presidential rhetoric develops in different contexts, serves different ends, and demands different methodological approaches.

Going Public, the Rhetorical Presidency, and the Waning Utility of Metatheory

The underlying premise behind most studies of presidential rhetoric relates to the significance of presidential address to issues of public deliberation. Jeffrey Tulis’s The Rhetorical Presidency, which has become the dominant lens by which scholars have approached the study of presidential rhetoric,8 contended that the advent of mass media technology enabled the president to reach mass audiences, fundamentally altering the constitutional arrangement that sought to balance power between the executive and the legislature.9 Often conflated with the going public thesis, which explains how presidents look for levers of power to advance their agenda, with public appeals as one such mechanism, the rhetorical presidency thesis refers to the form of presidential address and its implications for the constitutional balance of power between the three branches of government. Commonly articulated as an increase in the quantity of presidential rhetoric, Tulis argued that mass media facilitated a generic shift in presidential speech—radio enabled the president to make deliberative appeals directly to the people, circumventing the requirements of negotiating with Congress. This thesis—beginning with its articulation by James W. Caeser et al—has undergone intense interrogation by scholars of presidential rhetoric.10 That interrogation has undermined the original premise—that increases in presidential speech directed at the public has undermined the constitutional design—by criticizing the theorem’s timelines, historical accuracy, and conception of rhetoric itself. In short, rhetorical critics have demonstrated that the presidency has always been rhetorical and that the shift perceived by Tulis relates more to the character and quantity of that rhetoric. While the early presidency may have been somewhat restrained in the content of public appeals, preferring epideictic forms over direct deliberation, presidents increasingly shifted to deliberative rhetoric as a means to achieve their agendas.11

While this volume does not abandon the rhetorical presidency thesis, we have begun to think of it as a heuristic. From the onset, the rhetorical presidency thesis focused on the constitutional arrangement between the president and Congress in a specific period of time (mainly the 20th century). While Tulis incited significant ← 3 | 4 → pushback from rhetorical scholars, many of whom contested not only his historical timeline but the very essence of the thesis, the post-Tulis conversation has consistently accepted the premise that presidential speech is purposeful, its purpose is to persuade, and its power is such that it has unbalanced the constitutional order and elevated the significance of the presidency in American national and political life. But, as media, culture, campaigns, and the doctrine of presidential leadership have shifted, the presidency’s relationship to the constitution and Congress also shifts. Brandon Rottinghaus pointed to the evolution of these trends, noting that modern presidents “continually engage … in order to explain or build support for policies,” something made possible by technological developments in communication that enables presidents to “travel and stay connected to the apparatus of governing.”12 The facility with which presidents can directly communicate to the public, government, and foreign leaders has contributed to the omnipresence of the president in media—inclusive of journalism and fictional accounts—as well as in the national imaginary.

These trends have produced several outcomes. First, the current era has witnessed the proliferation of micro-texts. Historically, presidential address tended to be orchestrated speaking events, with planned and scripted remarks, delivered via broadcast mediums. The need to plan and stage speaking as an event limited the quantity of presidential speech. The shift from broadcast to cable television and the media glut that followed required presidents to speak more often, in less formal settings in order to find and reach audiences. From Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show to MTV Get out the Vote sessions, these trends have only intensified in the digital era. Now, presidents not only appear in popular culture settings, they also have digital presences that span Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, among others. Heralding a dramatic shift in the tradition of presidential address, the massive uptick in the frequency of presidential speech has challenged traditional theories of persuasion, partially because the form and content of these addresses has departed from traditional genres of presidential speech. Given the contextual changes in audiences and transmission, Susan Herbst provocatively suggests that “the presidential voice matters, but perhaps not the content.”13 In other words, presidents now engage audiences in strange places, with quick bursts of content, to unknown outcomes.

Simultaneously, the shifting media landscape also resulted in the decline of textual integrity of presidential speech. Where citizens once listened to or viewed speeches in their entirely, contemporary audiences now hear or see snippets. From cable television shows like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to real time meme creation and circulation, audiences exert greater control over presidential address than any time in history. In many cases, these efforts recirculate fragments of the original text in ways that convey alternative meanings from that intended by the president. ← 4 | 5 → Herbst maintains these trends have altered “citizens’ expectations, habits, preferences, and opinions,” requiring presidents to do more to reach and connect with the public.14 But the problem for presidents may be even more dire. The rhetorical presidency model, and its implicit assumption that presidential speech seek to persuade audiences to support presidential initiatives, depends upon notions of textual integrity. Stephen Heidt has written that a fragmented, atomized speech environment decenters the president and attempts at persuasion in favor of the discourse itself. His critique of the study of presidential address questions the utility of thinking of the president as a strategic actor, standing above the culture, searching for the perfect persuasive formula up to the task of captivating diverse audiences. While most presidents are strategic actors who attempt to design and deliver speeches to mass audiences to increase the prospects of securing their agendas, Heidt has pointed out that they are also subject to the discursive instability of the era.15 Vulnerable to the streams of rhetoric that flow through and around the presidency, presidential outlook and speech is constituted from that discourse.

These developments have led scholars to think about presidential strategies for managing the complexity of the current era. For example, Scacco & Coe argue the goals of presidential speech have changed. During the rhetorical presidency era, they contend, presidents sought to influence policy with major or national addresses. Now, in response to media fragmentation, they claim presidents cultivate presence in political and non-political arenas—making presidential rhetoric accessible, personal, and pluralistic. In short, their “ubiquitous presidency” thesis claims that presidents are now incentivized to be seen governing, rather than just governing. By articulating the president as a stable subject, engaged in strategic rhetorical action designed to reach and persuade audiences about specific policy topics, the ubiquitous presidency model extends the fundamental premise of the rhetorical presidency thesis, rather than rewriting it. While it is too soon to test the veracity of claims to presidential intent, we suggest there are additional avenues to consider.

Toward that end, we have identified several trends in presidential speech, its fragmentation, and circulation. First, presidential rhetoric is more disentermediated than ever. Digital forms of communication enable presidents to bypass media and avoid exposure to tough questions and still reach target audiences. Heralding the return of interactivity, digital interaction with the president echoes the era when (white, male) citizens could walk into the White House to converse with the nation’s leader. While presidents still must compete with new avenues of communication already clogged with popular culture, omitting media filters may heighten their capacities to frame issues. Second, presidential rhetorical strategy appears to be consolidating in the form of persona creation and embodiment. By this, we mean there is evidence that the persona presidents inhabit—lawyer, ← 5 | 6 → businessman—may have a greater impact on public perception of their agenda than the content of their speech.16 Studies that adopt this methodological approach center their analytic efforts on the discourse that constitutes the public persona of the president, enabling claims about the significance of presidential speech even when partial, atomized, and incomplete. Third, presidents increasingly insert deliberative content into non-deliberative events. These trends suggest new capacities for presidential speech in terms of reaching diverse audiences, but also implicate governance in an era in which presidents discuss everything from disaster relief to football fields. Conflating substantive (policy) concerns and spectacle (popular culture), the penetration of presidential speech into popular culture raises questions about the quality and efficacy of such deliberative endeavors. Finally, the domain of “presidential” rhetoric has expanded to include diverse actors across the executive branch, but without theory to attend to the addition of non-presidential speakers. Pointing to the contours of institutional governance, this development recognizes the suasive potential of presidential speech in terms of administrative actors.

Presidents, Rhetoric, and the Quandary of Significance in the Absence of Metatheory

Traditionally, the presidency has been read through public and archival texts in an institutional setting that focuses on the person of the president. This approach advances claims about the persuasive capacities of the president, particularly by deploying public appeals to advance a policy agenda. Often analyzing single speeches, these inquiries seek to uncover the ways presidential rhetoric facilitates identification between the speaker and the audience,17 constitutes versions of national identity,18 deploys tropes to form specific appeals,19 and elevates the primacy of place as a discursive marker.20 Studies explore how rhetorical styles ranging from religious,21 to the paranoid,22 the demagogic,23 and the authoritarian24 constitute specific types of audiences or media responses. Others hone in on the ways presidents strategically maneuver to define,25 equivocate,26 dodge,27 frame,28 or mythologize situations.29 An additional strand catalogues presidential rhetoric into specific genres, providing useful guidance for how to read presidential speeches in terms of their consistency or inconsistency with the rhetorical tradition of the presidency.30 Ancillary approaches trace the ways presidents use props, anecdotes, and materiality as textual evidence, demonstrating how those developments alter speech genres.31 These studies infer that presidential speech facilitates the president’s ability to navigate the treacherous terrain of the 21st century media ecology in order to sustain or advance their agenda. Focused on the interiority of the ← 6 | 7 → text, this branch of scholarship makes claims about rhetoric’s importance in the historical and contemporary analysis of politics by implicitly or explicitly judging presidential texts—as persuasive, artistic, significant, ethical, or none of the above.

Locating presidential rhetoric in its institutional setting raises the significance of presidential speech, not due to causal relationships, but rather as a resource that frames issues, creates institutional capacities, communicates with other elites, provides inventional resources, balances the institution off of cultural representations of the presidency, and performs a representative function. In specific form, this consideration has given rise to inquiries interested in the public policy potential of presidential discourse. Studies have focused on the place of presidential rhetoric in deliberative practices,32 including how presidential policy rhetoric sustains even policy decisions,33 how campaigns deploy policy talk as a sort of political alchemy to sustain candidacies,34 how tropes orient policy debates with normative political reason,35 how the anti-deliberative aspects of presidential actions can alter policy outcomes,36 how speech can undermine policy,37 and how speech institutionalizes policy practices.38 Taking nuanced approaches to presidential audiences, these studies demonstrate the depth of research invested in understanding the policy implications of presidential speech.

Other approaches to the presidency have appeared in the years since Gronbeck’s observations. One seeks to better understand the origins of presidential speech, tracing discourse from founding documents to speech39 or from one president to another.40 This genealogical approach to presidential rhetoric seeks to explain how presidential subjects themselves are constituted. Studies connect cultural experiences presidents had in their formative years to their political outlook to explain discursive and policy choices.41 Others reveal how political, social, and cultural continuities manifest in presidential speech.42 And some point to how presidents strategically embrace cultural narratives to rationalize their orientation to issues of national importance (in particular, foreign policy).43 Studies that adopt a genealogical orientation understand discourse as something that exists externally to the presidency but is incorporated in presidential speech for instrumental and constitutive ends. At times foregrounding the discourse, these studies also represent the presidency as a window or vantage point from which a discourse can be perceived, parsed, or elucidated.

Scholars have also begun to engage comparative studies that examine presidential discourse in international contexts. Some studies articulate the significance of presidential rhetoric abroad, in formal or informal settings, and parse the different audiences involved in the speaking event.44 Others compare the rhetoric of foreign presidents to that of the U.S. president.45 A final approach applies current methodologies to foreign leaders to better theorize the ways those leaders constitute publics, politics, and personas.46 As a nascent, but growing genre of presidential ← 7 | 8 → rhetoric, transnational studies infer an essential equivalence between and across democratic countries, their leadership, and the necessity, if not efficacy, of speech.

Scholars are also particularly interested in the ways these speech forms manifest during campaigns and elections. Over the last four presidential elections, studies have incorporated many of the traditional methodologies to explain the rise and fall of controversies, candidates, and platforms. Studies related to the 2004 election focused on the ways the war in Vietnam arose during the campaign,47 the “cultural trauma” of 9/11 and its continuing cultural relevance,48 and the reverberations of the 2000 recount.49 After Obama’s victory in 2008, scholars examined the rhetorical significance of Hillary Clinton’s Iraq War vote,50 the Reverend Wright controversy,51 gendered and raced media coverage during the primaries and campaign,52 and how John McCain crafted his political identity.53 With the rise, if not dominance, of social media and other digital media, the focus of elections has also yielded numerous studies thinking through the ways technological innovations has altered creation, delivery, and reception of presidential messages.54 Some have also turned to the significance of third party candidates to identify ways outsider discourse impacts the direction of the two major parties and their platforms.55

As with public culture itself, Obama’s election shifted the focus of scholarly inquiry to focus more closely on issues of race or gender and the presidency. While post-election studies have continued their thematic focus, Mitt Romney’s crafting of a political identity,56 for example, significant inquiry has investigated the racial politics of a black president,57 the gendered politics related to Obama’s legislative centerpiece,58 the gendered features of the 2016 campaign,59 and the broader dynamics of a gendered, raced, and heteronormative political institution.60 Perhaps heeding calls for presidential rhetoricians to address questions related to gender, race, and the implications of the poststructuralist turn,61 these studies demonstrate collective efforts by scholars across the field to examine and articulate the ways the preeminent political institution designed to represent the people participates in white, patriarchal, and heteronormative notions about American political culture and society.

At the same time scholars have amplified and expanded the domain of the presidential “canon” and the “rhetorical archeology” enacted to delve and illuminate the meaning of presidential texts, as Martin Medhurst once wrote, scholars have also sought elaborate the contours of the “symbolic presidency.”62 This line of inquiry has produced studies elaborating the ways popular culture representations of the presidency influence public attitudes and expectations of the candidate and office holder. Studies of “presidentiality” have examined public culture constructs of the presidency, demonstrating how fictive portrayals reveal national anxieties about the institution while elaborating a mythos of the president as a (white) romantic hero, striving to work for the American people.63 Others have discussed how those constructs produce racial and gendered stereotypes presidential aspirants must ← 8 | 9 → navigate.64 Some have examined visual representations related to presidents to explain how media and voters shape presidential personas.65 Finding that popular representations reflect back upon the presidency itself—altering how presidents constitute public personas and, in some cases, embody the role of president—these inquiries have synced with postmodern notions related to the instability of presidential subjectivities and the fragmentation of presidential texts. They have also examined the ways recent presidents have anticipated the atomization of speech to forge personas that can travel,66 as well as begun to unravel similar patterns of image making and persona construction as a strategic action by presidents from previous eras.67

While these trends speak to a vibrant, diverse, and increasingly agile understanding of the presidency, virtually all of these studies rely on the going public or rhetorical presidency theses. Even while scholars have begun to rethink what it means to study the presidency, expanding the canon of presidential speech as well as the critical praxis leveled to examine that speech, they have yet to grapple with a shifting presidential role in which the president is no longer able to rise above an increasingly diverse and fragmented culture. This volume, then, asks: what happens to presidential speech when the president is enmeshed in culture? How do genres get constituted within and outside of political culture? How do the narratives that describe those genres influence presidential address and the media landscapes that attempt to govern political culture? What types of claims can be made about contemporary presidents, the body of their discourse, and its significance to culture, deliberation, and public policy?

We believe the time is ripe for discussion that brings together diverse theoretical diversity in the interest of advancing conceptions of presidential rhetoric in an era of radically shifting contexts. Bringing the study of presidential rhetoric and work in the wider field into closer conversation, this volume postulates a range of possibilities for how to conceive of the presidency and its significance to the national political landscape. In the spirit of amendment rather than critique, the collection combines scholarly approaches normally associated with the presidency and rhetorical studies with emergent approaches to the study of public discourse. For that reason, the volume contains a mix of authors not necessarily associated with the study of presidential rhetoric, but who apply their theoretical acumen to the presidency, and presidential scholars interested in reimagining disciplinary trends.

Chapter Summaries

While the chapters in this volume cannot answer all of the pertinent questions related to presidential rhetoric, they seek to begin a conversation for understanding ← 9 | 10 → the relational dynamics between the presidency and audiences in an era of media fragmentation and audience recirculation. The first section of this volume focuses on presidential communication and relationships. Chapters in this section forward cases that demonstrate the way the institution of the presidency incentivizes rhetorical relationships as a means for sustaining and intensifying the president’s claim to knowledge, interpretation, and policy. Timothy Barney opens this section by focusing on presidential relationships to place. In this case, his study identifies the map as a sort of geopolitical guidepost for presidential audiences. Focusing on Cold War presidents who used maps for ideological claims, Barney demonstrates how the map enabled a sort of geographic thinking about world politics that naturalized realist assumptions about international relations during World War II. In his terms, maps serve as rhetorically powerful devices by extending and entrenching ideological worldviews. This power, he contends, derives from the implicit notion that maps are ideologically neutral—they show the world as it actually is—even while they facilitate and naturalize competitive notions of international relations. Urging public address scholars to “foreground” the ways presidential rhetoric constructs geopolitical dynamics that influence the ways foreign policy gets made, Barney’s chapter points to the need for greater emphasis on the ways presidential props contribute to “geopolitical consent” in a mediated and networked world.

Allison Prasch adopts an alternative approach by isolating the ways presidents use physical spaces in public messages. For Prasch, thinking about place can explain why some presidential speeches are more powerful, persuasive, and long lasting. Examining Barack Obama’s remarks on his visit to Cuba in 2016, she contends mass media technology has amplified the significance of place in presidential address. Her chapter offers a methodological guide for scholars interested in reading presidential rhetoric in situ.

Milene Ortega & Mary E. Stuckey write about presidential relationships between the presidency and civil society. Ortega and Stuckey intend to expand the definition of presidential rhetoric to include surrogates inside and outside the administration. Focusing on the “ensemble” of “political voices” that fragment, circulate, and orchestrate presidential discourse, they contend, sheds light on the ways presidents wield institutional power to achieve policy goals. Their study of the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties draws on archival and public materials to explain President Carter’s success as the outcome of a coordinated and harmonized rhetorical strategy involving the president, institutional actors, and civil society. By synthesizing the criticism of presidential appeals with institutional and non-institutional actors aligned with the president, Ortega and Stuckey demonstrate treating presidential rhetoric as a dense ecosystem of discourse offers fertile ground for scholarly exploration. ← 10 | 11 →

Ryan Neville-Shepard’s chapter addresses presidential relationships to speech itself. While many may have read Trump’s addresses as violating the norms of presidential speech, in particular his inaugural, Neville-Shepard contends the best way to understand Donald Trump’s rhetoric is by perceiving how his speech fits the genre of third party candidates. Characterizing Trump’s discourse as aligned with that of outsider candidates, he advances the notion of “genre-busting” as a distinct rhetorical strategy at the core of Trump’s political appeal. Offering an alternative, novel way of thinking about genre, Neville-Shepard suggests scholars think about the power of genre violations to generate media attention, captivate audiences, and advance political standing.

Jay Childers and Cassandra C. Bird attend to presidential relationships to events. Focusing on presidential responses to national tragedies from Ronald Reagan to the present, they argue presidential responses have constituted a persona they label “Comforter-in-Chief.” This persona lives across administrations of differing partisan orientations, constructing and constricting the ways presidents speak after tragedy. Productive of media coverage that has come to expect a specific, empathetic form, Childers and Bird suggest this persona has shifted the role presidents play in the national imaginary and, potentially, amplified presidential rhetorical power to frame and shape the way events are articulated in the media. Foregrounding the persona and its interaction with political journalism, this chapter implies presidential scholars would be served by examining the interactive elements of presidential speech.

The second section of this volume reads the presidency through its interactions with diverse publics. Blake Abbott begins this section by describing the ways postmodern culture has fragmented the presidential subject. His chapter contends that circulating discourses influence and alter the president’s identity, if not policy orientation. By focusing on the presidential subject, Abbott asks scholars of public address to think of the institution as a participant in a fragmented media culture.

Ronald Walter Greene and Jay Alexander Frank’s chapter offers a unique case in which the discursive context of Obama’s “red line” speech reframed the president’s rhetoric toward Syria. Their approach demonstrates the ways social and international norms constitute the presidential subject. Pointing to the globalization of the presidency, the chapter highlights the ways the rise of global audiences coincided with the rise of the rhetorical presidency. Their findings suggest that public address scholars should attend to global audiences.


VIII, 348
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. VIII, 348 pp.

Biographical notes

Stephen J. Heidt (Volume editor) Mary E. Stuckey (Volume editor)

Stephen J. Heidt earned his PhD at Georgia State University in Rhetoric and Politics. His work focuses on the intersections between the presidency and American foreign policy. He has published in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Southern Communication Journal, and several edited volumes. Mary E. Stuckey is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University. She is the recipient of the National Communication Association’s Distinguished Scholar Award. Her books have won the Roderick P. Hart Outstanding Book Award, the Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award, and the Bruce E. Gronbeck Political Communication Award.


Title: Reading the Presidency
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358 pages