Tracing the Changes in Presidential Address and Power By Ryan Lee Teten
Scholars of the rhetorical presidency have operated within a paradigm that divides modern and traditional presidential communication at the turn of the 20th century. Depending on the scholarship, this division occurs with Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One of the most cited works, Jeffrey Tulis’s 1987 book The Rhetorical Presidency, argues that a modern rhetorical presidency constituting public appeals began during the Wilson administration.  Ryan Lee Teten’s work The Evolutionary Rhetorical Presidency: Tracing the Changes in Presidential Address and Power directly tests the paradigm that the rhetorical presidency is a relatively new phenomenon by examining over 200 years of presidential appeals.
Confronting the scholarly current, Teten content analyzes by hand 9,153 presidential texts including Inaugural Addresses, State of the Unions, presidential proclamations, and executive orders from George Washington to George W. Bush. His purpose is clear: to test the traditional/modern typology that places president’s rhetorically into either a limited public appeals camp (presidents before 1900) or the public appeals camp (presidents after 1900). Teten’s findings demonstrate little support for the division advanced by past research.
Among the key findings, Teten illustrates how instances of public identification and authority rhetoric have been used since the founding and increased slowly in modern Inaugural and State of the Union Addresses. He finds evidence that modern presidents propose policies at similar levels to “traditional” presidents, with the Inaugural Address serving as a prominent venue for the appearance of substantive policy rhetoric. This result challenges existing notions of the Inaugural as a ceremonial address valuing platitudes over policy.
In addition to these findings, readers of Electronic Media & Politics will find Teten’s discussions of the historical evolution in presidential media quite compelling. He illustrates a dramatic reduction in the length of the State of the Union Address following President Taft’s administration. Teten attributes this reduction to a return to oral delivery from its traditional written form. The accompanying graphs, which are studded among the book’s findings, depict how the address returned to a similar length used by Presidents Washington and Adams, who also delivered the State of the Union orally. Media scholars will also note these findings coincide with the first experimentations in presidential radio by President Wilson.
While Teten’s scholarship contributes to the study of the rhetorical presidency, conceptual and methodological weaknesses detract from a fuller appreciation of this work. The scholarship often fails to adequately define important terms such as “address,” which Teten broadly interprets to include proclamations and executive orders. The original division of the traditional and modern presidency accounted for the visibility of the office and the man who occupied it. Thus, public rhetoric was tied to public visibility and ultimately public opinion. The analysis of proclamations and executive orders enhances understanding of these communicative forms, but will do little to quiet potential critics questioning their place alongside addresses with greater public reach. A stronger justification is warranted for their analysis as their inclusion clouds the picture of rhetorical power Teten paints. Executive orders and proclamations have the power of law, whereas Inaugurals and State of the Unions have the power to rhetorically shape law. These constitute important, but quite disparate purposes which alter the presidential intent and publicity of these appeals.
Teten’s methodological choices cast some doubt on otherwise important findings. The content analysis lacked both reliability measures for the codes and related statistics to fully determine the magnitude of trends. Some trends were nebulously defined by the statistical language of “significance” and “correlation,” yet the accompanying chi-square or related statistics to properly assess these conclusions were absent. Unclear language choices extended to the definition of some codes. While some coding areas were clearly defined (the definition of a policy or directive rhetoric), other codes were left hazier (how researchers may code for “visionary” policies). The appendix provided the rationale for some coding decisions while other information was absent. This important information could not be located in alternative sources associated with the book’s publisher.
The Evolutionary Rhetorical Presidency’s perspective maximizes its appeal among rhetoricians, political scientists, and communication scholars. Teten’s approach is grounded in traditional conceptions of rhetorical power and persuasion, though his interpretation of the Aristotelian means of persuasion understates the role of audience perceptions of presidential ethos and power. Political scientists will appreciate the breadth of analysis, Teten’s treatment of the historical evolution of the institution, and his focus on the development of executive orders and proclamations. Communication scholars will immediately notice the thorough context provided by Teten’s inclusion of relevant texts to build arguments around his findings.
The Evolutionary Rhetorical Presidency joins recent work  challenging the applicability of the traditional/modern divide that has characterized the rhetorical presidency. While Ryan Lee Teten’s conceptual and methodological choices may lead to some skepticism about whether this scholarship successfully challenges the existing rhetorical paradigm, the findings cast considerable doubt on the conventional wisdom. The book offers scholars and practitioners alike a path forward in studying the often overlooked rhetorical practices of 18th and 19th century presidencies.
1. Tulis, Jeffrey. 1987. The Rhetorical Presidency. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
2. Saldin, Robert P. 2011. “William McKinley and the Rhetorical Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 41(1), 119-134.