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The Post-Rhetorical Presidency of Barack Obama

Presidents Bush, Obama and Clinton
Pete Souza / White House


Justin Vaughn

At the time of this publication, Justin S. Vaughn was an associate professor of political science in the School of Public Service and director of the Center of Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University. His research focuses on American politics, with an emphasis in executive politics, political rhetoric and communication, and the linkage between public policy and public opinion. He earned his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, and his B.S. and M.S. at Illinois State University.

“Speak all the time and carry a little stick”

At a certain point, if one is a certain age and perhaps a devotee of late-90s sci fi, President Obama giving a speech on gun violence in the wake of a mass shooting began to feel a bit like a glitch in the matrix. By the time Obama spoke following the Orlando nightclub shooting in June, we’d heard just such a speech more than a dozen times. Only, rather than an indication that Agent Smith was about to show up and ruin everyone’s day, this recurring rhetorical déjà vu underscores the fact that we are in a new era of presidential leadership, where the bully pulpit holds little of the sway it once did and unilateral presidential action, while increasingly common, is highly constrained and frequently ineffective. Scholars, myself included, have referred to today’s era of presidential leadership as the post-rhetorical era.

The transition to this new era, which Obama, and arguably his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, both exemplify, has been decades in the making, spurred by both political and media changes. Many scholars of the American presidency have taken it as an article of faith that sustained, consistent presidential attention to a particular policy issue should result in policy change in the president’s preferred direction. There is arguably no issue on which Obama has spoken on so frequently and at such a high level as gun violence and, converse to expectations, with so little to show for it. Twice this year, in January and again in June, the president made major efforts to secure reform through Congress, only to come away with nothing. Not only has he been unable to persuade Congress to pass legislation reflecting his preferred solutions (including when his party controlled both chambers), his rhetoric does not appear to have made an appreciable dent in public opinion on the matter. As George Edwards, perhaps the leading scholar when it comes to the relationship between presidential rhetoric and public leadership, would say, Obama’s rhetoric fell on deaf ears.


In 1987, University of Texas professor Jeffrey Tulis published The Rhetorical Presidency, and in doing so helped to fundamentally alter the study of presidential politics in multiple disciplines. One of three landmark texts to be published by leading presidency scholars in the late 1980s — Samuel Kernell’s Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership (1986) and George C. Edwards III’s At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress (1989) were equally formative — Tulis’s book provided a strong intellectual foundation that embraced both history and public law as it sought to identify and explain early 20th Century changes in presidential leadership.

In a nutshell, Tulis argued that beginning with Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, American presidents became increasingly comfortable taking appeals directly to the people. For Tulis, this was more than just an interesting development to note; it was also the beginning of a fundamental shift in the constitutional order, one that was as undesirable as it was seismic. Prior to this shift, presidents, with few exceptions (e.g., Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson), were largely passive actors. Policy leadership occurred in the Congress, where the framers of the Constitution intended, or so the argument goes. When presidents took advantage of developing communications technology in the opening decades of the 20th Century and began to go over and around Congress, what populists at the time might have considered a more fully realized democracy struck Tulis as inappropriate, and a threat to the constitutional order.

Ironically, as Tulis was drafting The Rhetorical Presidency, a series of forces, largely invisible at the time, were coming together to end the rhetorical era and usher in the current post-rhetorical moment. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 kicked off what we now know as a decades-long conservative regime, one that quickly transitioned away from the New Deal/Great Society policies of providing more government support to the public, moving instead to reduce government activity (except in the area of national defense) and devolve much of the remaining authority to the states.

Other important trends simultaneously developed and/or accelerated. The partisan polarization we now recognize as perhaps the defining characteristic of contemporary American politics started to emerge (see this post about how it manifested in abortion politics, though the same phenomenon occurred across almost the entire range of policy issues), while the decline of Southern Democrats, which began in the 1960s in response to LBJ’s support of civil rights legislation, intensified. Moreover, a new telecommunications boom was in the offing, spurred in part by the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act; by the start of the 1990s, cable revenue exceeded broadcast, and as the internet began to proliferate in the subsequent two decades, the nation developed a highly decentralized media system, one where today an individual essentially can find information sources that cater to their preferences regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. The result today is an electorate that exists within an infinite number of echo chambers; unsurprisingly, the average Republican today is more conservative, the average Democrat is more liberal, the number of self-identified moderates continues to shrink, and the ideological distance between the median voter in each major party is greater than it has been in decades.

Taken together, Obama and his immediate predecessors inherited a situation where although public presidential leadership is expected, breaking through the noise created by infinite media sources and platforms, and those they do reach are effectively immune from persuasion. And yet a president today can’t just throw his hands in the air and revert to a 20th Century vision of the office. Instead, rather than go back to the presidency as it existed prior to Tulis’s rhetorical era, they have adjusted in ways that are unique to the 21st Century. Barack Obama’s frustrated efforts on gun control provide perhaps the perfect frame through which to view this new, post-rhetorical moment.


By the time President Obama delivered his remarks on the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida on June 12, the nation had become used to the pattern: tragic event, somber statement, call for gun-related reform, gnashing and wailing from those demanding reform when it again failed to materialize, and then a gradual decline of salience until the next tragic event. Prior to the Orlando statement, the president had made statements concerning violent acts twice at Fort Hood (November 2009 and April 2014), as well as on the Gabby Giffords shooting in Arizona (January 2011), the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting (July 2012), the Sikh temple in Wisconsin (August 2012), Sandy Hook Elementary School (December 2012), the Washington Navy Yard (September 2013), a Jewish Community Center in Kansas (April 2014), Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina (June 2015), a military recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tennessee (July 2015), Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon (October 2015), a community center in San Bernardino, California (December 2015), and following the Uber driver shootings in Kalamazoo, Michigan (February 2016). Moreover, since then, Obama has made comments on the sniper shootings of Dallas police in July 2016.

Absent congressional action and a meaningful swell of public support, the president attempted to turn to another hallmark of the post-rhetorical presidency: unilateral action. Presidents have at their disposal a variety of policy making tools, from executive orders to memoranda, signing statements, directives, proclamations, agreements and more. Social scientists, in recent years, have established a rather robust cottage industry that examines and explains the growth of unilateral action, but recently scholars have become more attuned to the need to study the impact of these executive actions. In doing so, some have realized that the president’s ability to act unilaterally isn’t quite as powerful as we once believed. Obama’s effort on gun control is a perfect illustration.

In January 2016, while his efforts to secure meaningful reform through Congress were wilting, the president issued a series of what the New York Times called “a modest, limited set of executive actions.” See this article by presidency scholar Andrew Rudalevige for a comprehensive accounting of what Obama’s actions did —  and didn’t —  do.  In May, following the announcement of two additional unilateral initiatives, Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote in Slate about how the fine print of these “piecemeal efforts” indicates their very marginal nature. As the pattern of rhetoric discussed previously would suggest, the unimpressive nature of these actions was not the result of disinterest by the president. Instead, they underscore the fact that unilateral action alone does not yield much meaningful success for presidents.

Such is life in the post-rhetorical era, where party polarization, media saturation, and immunity to persuasion characterize the political environment in which presidents attempt, largely unsuccessfully, to lead. Presidential attempts to use what Theodore Roosevelt termed the bully pulpit almost always fail and presidential efforts to act alone prove unequal to the task.