The Emotive Presidency

14 April, 2023
Philip Wallach

Why Congress argues for the institutional strengths of America’s legislature as a representative body capable of sustaining a fruitful dialogue between the nation’s many diverse factions. But one might reasonably ask: compared with what? Can’t the executive branch, and especially the president—who is, after all, the only official elected by the whole nation—also represent the entire country through his actions and rhetoric?

The book argues that being a many-membered legislature does indeed make Congress much better at representing a multifarious people than a singular president. But when Mikael Good (then a research assistant at AEI, now a graduate student in political theory at Georgetown University) and I began researching the claims made on behalf of presidential representation, we found ourselves going down a rabbit hole. This is a deep literature we wanted to engage, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s obvious innovations (for better or worse) in the realm of presidential representation.

In the end, much of what we wanted to say didn’t fit into Why Congress, and so was born “The Emotive Presidency,” an article that we’ve recently published in the Spring 2023 issue of National Affairs. We argue that Trump’s distinctive style needs to be “situated within a bigger story: the dream and disappointment of presidential representation.” For those who have studied Jeffrey Tulis’s famous 1987 book, The Rhetorical Presidency, some of our argument tracking the development of presidents’ representational ambitions from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan will be familiar. But we make the case that Americans’ disillusionment with the grand promises of the rhetorical style have created the space for a narrower and more jaded sort of representation by presidents, in which emotive performances become the primary deliverable that presidents offer up to their core supporters. This is undeniably potent—many Americans seem to truly relish the kind of instantaneous feelings that such performances create—but it badly unbalances the constitutional system, which is meant to create a political process concerned with a longer time horizon.

The piece concludes with the hope that we might reorient our political imaginations away from the image made by the rhetorical and emotive presidencies, in which events “revolve around a larger-than-life president, like planets around the sun.” That requires re-vivifying Congress for the American people—just what Why Congress aims to do.

Read the whole thing.