Not too long ago in a Turkish town it was reported that one ill-advised lamb took a leap of faith over the edge of a cliff. 1,500 more sheep followed. Many of them died. Leadership matters.
Our Founding Fathers were deeply aware of the powerful nature of leadership. George Washington led on the battlefield but it was the Continental Congress that made the most important decisions to win the American Revolution. Mobs may have influenced the urgency of the Declaration of Independence but they surely did not write it. How best to incorporate “an energetic president” without creating a destructive demagogue? History had not been kind to demagogues, rhetorically charged leaders.
We may revere our Constitution but make no mistake about it; the President today looks little like the office held by George Washington. Modern mass media along with the modern campaign and its tools have transformed our Chief of State into nothing less than the Mouthpiece-In-Chief. Whether we like it or not, presidential leadership today demands the ability to talk directly to the American people. And it better be good. Presidential talk has consequences.
There has been no shortage of political scientists who have documented this shift in our expectation for presidential talk. James W. Ceaser, Glen E. Thurow and Joseph M. Bessette are but a few. The best cogent analysis can be found in Jeffrey K. Tulis’ The Rhetorical Presidency. Like others, Tulis roots this fundamental change in the rise of mass media and the modern campaign. More so, however, Tulis documents how our expectations of modern leadership have changed.
“National consciousness” no longer sees the president as merely “head of the government” but as “leader of the people.” President Woodrow Wilson heralded this new awareness when he said, “There is but one national voice in the country and that is the voice of the President.” In times of great tragedy and great joy we look to the president for our words. We anticipate words of inspiration. Most often, we follow.
Here lies the danger. Presidents’ cannot help themselves. According to recent scholarship presidents are able to buttress their popularity by “priming” certain “issues that underlie their approval evaluations.” Modern rhetorical presidents, it can be argue, are somewhat held in check by inflating expectations. Nevertheless, we the people are all too willing to follow presidential rhetoric wherever it leads.