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Why presidents must play the hero

- February 17, 2014

Justin Vaughn is assistant professor of political science at Boise State University. Jennifer Mercieca is associate professor and associate head of communication at Texas A&M University. They recently published The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency.
Upon delivering his 2014 State of the Union Address, Barack Obama managed to accomplish a surprising trick: simultaneously upset the political right and left by saying very little. Conservatives took umbrage with the president’s pledge to use unilateral action to advance policy initiatives if Congress couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get it together enough to work with him, while liberals lamented the president’s small-ball approach while not exactly holding their collective breath waiting for him to follow through on his imperial promises. (Indeed, a flurry of post-speech analyses suggested that Obama’s record as a unilateralist is rather muted compared to his recent predecessors.)
That an ever-incredulous right found something to be outraged about in the president’s speech isn’t exactly shocking. Nor is the skepticism of an increasingly disappointed left, tired of the Obama administration’s passivity and moderation. More interesting is considering why Obama put himself in the rhetorical position that he did. Why make threats of unilateral action that are likely to satisfy no one while giving talk radio and cable commentators another arrow for their quiver?
An answer to this puzzle can be found in the logic that underlies nearly all presidential rhetoric, particularly high-profile events such as the State of the Union Address. In The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency, we argue that presidents justify their presidencies – both at the outset of their administrations and throughout their tenure in office – in the face of public expectations for heroism and greatness. Opportunities to fulfill these expectations are at best fleeting, and the overall task remains virtually impossible, yet presidents must strive –and do so publicly and frequently – to meet the challenge.
As presidents attempt to close the yawning gap between what the public expects and what political reality and the American system of government allows, they must shoulder three kinds of presidential burdens: institutional burdens (the “glorious burdens” specific to the presidency itself); contextual burdens (burdens to the historic moment within which the president assumes and holds office); and personal burdens (burdens specific to the individual president).
Like each of his predecessors, Obama carries these three types of burdens simultaneously. In addition to contextual factors such as ongoing partisan polarization, a sluggish economic recovery and wars stretched now into their second decade, Obama faces unprecedented challenges related to his status as the nation’s first African American president. His race dramatically influences – and constrains – the ways he is able to engage in his presidency; for example, no other American president has had to worry about expressions of emotion being interpreted as evidence of an “angry black man.” Moreover, as Obama has had to reckon with both the unique problems of the current political moment and the personal challenges he alone faces, he must also wrestle with the burdens that come with the office itself and that all presidents confront.
Indeed, on this Presidents’ Day, the president’s institutional burdens are of particular note. Officially observed since 1879 (although Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in February 1862 celebrating the 130th anniversary of George Washington’s birth), the federal holiday officially celebrates Washington but the proximity of Lincoln’s birth date and his parallel reputation as one of the presidential greats has led to most Americans viewing the day as a celebration of both men, if not quite the institution of the presidency itself.
The mandated days off and nationwide shopping sales reflect a presidential mythology established and reinforced through countless cultural markers ranging from textbook depictions of presidential heroism to the visages carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore. When Obama speaks to the nation, he does so through a filter of fictions that demand heroism, and in its absence our expectations require a pantomimed performance.
This is what helps explain Obama’s promise that neither he nor the nation stands still while also pledging his part in a year of action, to reference two particularly quotable moments from his recent State of the Union that were nonetheless delivered in the face of many more months of federal gridlock and likely inaction. The heroic expectations of the American presidency, despite its myriad burdens, do not allow acknowledgment of impotence nor does it tolerate expressions of doubt, indifference, or defeat. Even when heroism does not appear in the cards, American presidents must play as if their hand was full of nothing but aces.