Tulis and the Rhetorical Presidency

Tulis contends in The Rhetorical Presidency (1987) that Woodrow Wilson added a “second constitution” to the presidency (18). Under the original constitution, modern presidents still face institutional constraints, which extend from governmental norms to presidential behavior. The framers design and republican culture remain as American political culture, even though the president has usurped some aspects of the original constitution that pertain to the legislature (e.g. declaring war power as enumerated in Article II, Section VIII, and articulated by Hamilton in Federalist Papers 69). Overall, there have not been attempts to alter the original design, such as changing the single executive to a plural executive.

The second constitution dramatically added a new tenet to presidential leadership. Post Wilson, there is “a premium on active and continuous presidential leadership of popular opinion, [is] buttressed by several extra-Constitutional factors such as the mass media and the proliferation of primaries as a mode of presidential selection” (18). Indeed, in 2011, the Republican Party held 7 official primary debates in advance of the 2012 presidential election, not including the “Thanksgiving” debate. These candidates display websites that showcase their political platform.

21st century presidents have entered a post-modern period. They are inundated with exponential uses of technology. However, copious amounts of imagery and narrative may produce a radical collapse of time and space, most profoundly within the “free” internet (e.g. no censorship, such as Wiki Leaks, access to governmental data, reports and presidential weekly video speeches—see Obama). This fragmentation, considering the rhetorical nature of the President under the auspices of the second constitution causes leadership to depend upon coalescing factions at the expense of a grand narrative. The President’s saturation of the media enables the executive to constantly address many political platform canons. But constancy may not mean consistency, which may result in incoherent platitudes—exemplifying Bourriaud’s signifier (i.e. the hotel I booked on the internet appears exceptional) and signified (i.e. I arrived at the hotel and it is in terrible condition).

On the other hand, the second constitution may enable an agglomeration of policy initiatives. For example, presidential candidate Ron Paul has articulated the same message for decades, particularly in the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections. Paul’s conservative values consistently advocate for the elimination of foreign militarism via the President of the United States, the enhancement of civil rights and liberties for the American people, the return of legislative responsibility for lawmaking, and the reduction of federal involvement in domestic programs (e.g. radical devolution). This consistency does not surmise that Paul would ignore Wilson’s second constitution in a post-modern state. Rather, Paul’s theory and values may illuminate a way to consistently hold the same political space, therefore acting as an exemplar of executive leadership via values and republican actions. Of course, Paul has yet to demonstrate this theory since he has not received the approbation of the electorate. To be sure, Paul has not been able to mobilize enough factions amongst the diverse electorate.

A post-modern presidency amidst Tulis’s second constitution may provide the opportunity for unlikely presidential candidates. For example, if the majority faction truly desired a businessman as President, then they could have elected Ross Perrot in 1992, who personally financed his campaign and utilized media coverage to showcase his business credentials to support his business plan for America. The media and election debates allow the candidates to access all media—informing denizens. President Obama’s nomination and 2008 election is a result of the rhetorical presidency—accessible primary debates, creation of a professional campaign (e.g. networking with the voting public). In the backdrop of American history, it seems improbable that Obama would have been elected without Tulis’s second constitution. Perhaps America will soon elect a woman?

President Obama, under Tulis’s second constitution, may illuminate aspects of the rhetorical presidency par excellence. Obama rapidly utilized the presidential primaries, campaigning, and media to pronounce his message to the voters. The primaries allow presidential candidates to provide the public with symbols and images regarding what he or she would institute as President. Obama’s vision to exit the Iraq War and address healthcare head-on resonated with 2008 voters. Obama radically increased fundraising and political rhetoric activity via the internet. The internet enabled him to create a massive email register of voters, whereby he could advocate his message to private citizens. Indeed, I showcased this rhetorical advancement with my political science college students in 2007 and 2008.

The second constitution manifests a form of instant communication with the American population, even though appealing to different factions at fundraisers may result in disjointed images and symbols (e.g. Obama’s 2008 comment that bitter Americans “cling to their guns or religion”). Overall, President Obama’s highly regarded rhetorical skills are consistent with Tulis’s second constitution. Obama’s use of public rhetoric in the media vastly contributed to his 2008 election, which importantly include his political platforms that were available on the internet, which are tracked everyday. However, it is another question altogether to compare Obama’s rhetoric to his actions as President.

The second constitution is a rhetorical tenet to be measured, but post-modern presidents might not be capable of major public policy alterations anymore. After all, President Obama’s Iraq War withdrawal was nearly a replica of W. Bush’s exit agreement with the Iraqi government, and, Obama’s healthcare policy is more likely a mild alteration of law according to the public problems of healthcare (i.e. large number of uninsured, poor regulatory structure, personal bankruptcy via healthcare costs). Tulis therein finds that the modern presidency may be frustrated by its inability to solve public policy dilemmas and thus denied the opportunity of great success!

Presidential scholar Steven Skowronek explains in The Politics Presidents Make (1997) that the elasticity and process of the post-modern presidency has stopped the politics of disjunction (i.e. the failure to implement needed changes to address public problems) and the politics of reconstruction (i.e. the ability to change the regime in order construct a new regime armed to solve public problems). If reconstructive and disjunctive presidents no longer exist, in a normative sense, chaotic political turbulence would also disappear. However, the post-modern world spectacularly integrates economic and environmental globalization for Earth’s internet denizens. Thus, fragmentation of American factions is also observed within a global context. Since the President must account for this post-modern manifestation, rhetoric may diverge from policy, and the voters may become disillusioned with the President.

If Skowronek is correct that post-modern presidents are all preemptive; meaning, the elected President runs against the stable regime and succeeds in limited change, then scholars should discover ad hoc coalitions instead of constancy within political parties. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are manifestations of a permanent revolution. These movements may die out as others form, or, perhaps they shall contribute to the transformation of America’s two major political parties. Due to multiple factions and the recruiting of disparate interest groups, Presidents need not articulate previous presidents. Presidents need not suffer the past anymore; instead, post-modern presidents utilizing Tulis’s second constitution keep entertaining new possibilities of targeted innovation. The broken car is never replaced, rather returned to the mechanic’s shop time and time again.

Tulis’s original constitution thesis describes a prohibition on presidential speech to promote deliberation among the people. Indeed, this activity was designed into the legislative branch. The Electoral College was formed to insulate the President from the people. However, Woodrow Wilson increased rhetoric to the masses in an attempt to manipulate public opinion. Presidents using this type of rhetoric do not desire to increase deliberation—they want the public to overwhelmingly support their initiatives. Conversely, the abundance of rhetoric may create meaningless rhetoric—empty promises. Presidents post Wilson may become trapped by their symbols and images—their narrative. Hence, when the President’s policies do not satisfy the electorate, they are considered a failure. And it is unlikely that the President will be able to please so many ad hoc interest groups.

Wilson’s “second constitution” invention has caused dilemmas and frustrations for its presidents. Tulis uses the presidency of Lyndon Johnson to demonstrate this effect. Johnson’s War on Poverty rhetoric “served as a surrogate for deliberation at crucial junctures of the congressional process” (1987, 161). This double-edged presidential sword meant that the President would create the legislative policy, and, that the President would be responsible for the public policy. The deliberative body, Congress, could endeavor to wash their hands of policy failure, particularly since the President called for the law and the President’s bureaucracy implemented to law.

For example, Johnson called for better education, employment and health-care programs, but the surfeit of rhetoric was matched with a paucity of design and implementation. Tulis agrees with Zarefsky (1986), “The very choices of symbolism and argument which had aided the adoption of the program were instrumental in undermining its implementation and in weakening public support for its basic philosophy” (1987, 172). Tulis finds that President Johnson’s short-term War on Poverty rhetoric amounted to long-term costs and “long-term failure” (1987, 22). The second constitution—the rhetorical presidency—thus limits the President of the United States, mostly because the President’s rhetoric may be negligible, at best, in all actuality. Examples include the negative income tax, which caused a reduction in workforce productivity; and, discovered fraud and abuse within welfare and housing programs.

This essay has accounted for Tulis’s explanation of Wilson’s “second constitution.” The rhetorical presidency changed the President’s behavior, the electorate information, and election decisions. Public speeches may be less substance-laden than before (e.g. acting as if joining the congressional debates and suggesting recommendations), but the media provides people with multiple sources of the president’s policies. In this fragmentation of endless sources and misunderstandings, the President has changed from suggesting policy to Congress to declaring recommendations to the constituency. Obama thus explains the President’s stance to the citizens of America, the normative public policy, but people may not then approve of the de jure laws once organized and affecting the population. New protests may quickly form as a result of the “second constitution.”

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4 thoughts on “Tulis and the Rhetorical Presidency

  1. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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