Rhetorical Presidency

January 24, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- All the folderol surrounding State of the Union addresses illustrates the state of the union.

The president -- any president -- enters the House chamber to ridiculously prolonged applause. The applauders are politicians, whose excessive praise of one another expresses ambivalence about praise: Any but unlimited praise may imply limits to their praiseworthiness. The president then speaks to the nation, over the heads of the audience the Constitution stipulates: It is to Congress that the president is supposed to give ''information of the state of the union.'' Then an opposition leader delivers a televised ''response'' written days before he has heard what he is responding to.

Interbranch deliberation has long since been displaced by rhetoric designed to produce mass effects. Jeffrey Tulis of the University of Texas, author of ''The Rhetorical Presidency,'' notes that leaders of the two political branches did not always speak past one another to vast amorphous constituencies. During the first two presidencies, those of Washington and Adams, the House and Senate formed committees to draft responses to the president's address. The responses were carried to the president, who responded to the delegations delivering them.

Jefferson ended the practice of delivering the State of the Union message in person to Congress. Henry Adams, in his history of Jefferson's administration, notes that the Jefferson-Madison faction considered the custom of presidents addressing Congress ''an English habit'' smacking of monarchical grandeur, the lofty instructing the underlings.

When the practice of delivering the State of the Union in person to Congress was revived, in 1913, the reviver was a former professor of political science who had, as professors are apt to have, a theory. Woodrow Wilson believed that the presidency is the only office able to, or even entitled to, impart movement to government. Wilson thought the president must, with his rhetoric, energize the public in order to compel Congress.

Wilson thus rejected the modest notion of the presidency endorsed by the first president and the founding generation. Washington's biographer James Thomas Flexner says Washington ''did not visualize the president as an initiator of policy, a prime mover.'' Washington wrote: ''The election of the different branches of Congress by freemen, either directly or indirectly, is the pivot on which turns the first wheel of the government, a wheel which communicates motion to all the rest.''

Conservatives, who once believed in congressional supremacy, now accept the Wilsonian model of the presidency, for three reasons. First, it is now conventional, and so are they. Second, Congress is controlled by Democrats. Third, their recent hero, Ronald Wilson Reagan, had the rhetorical skills requisite for a Wilsonian presidency.

Liberals have two reasons for favoring a Wilsonian presidency. The rhetorical presidency is suited to stirring passions, such as fear, which can reconcile the public to expansive government. And such a presidency encourages plebiscitary, non-deliberative government -- the framing of public disputes starkly as ''us versus them.''

Health-care reform, the president's probable preoccupation in tomorrow's State of the Union address, illustrates tendencies of the modern presidency. Reform has been identified with the presidency, with the implication that any reform by Congress less sweeping than the president's will reflect the parochialism of a lesser institution. Furthermore, the drive for vast expansion of government in the name of reform has been fueled by manufactured fear -- the declaration that America's health-care system is in ''crisis.'' What should be a deliberative process is becoming a cartoon conflict of heroes and villains.

Inflation in the health-care sector has been cited by the president as one of the primary justifications for his 1,300-page reform bill. However, that inflation continues to decline, to 6.3 percent in the first half of 1993 and 4.4 in the second half, largely because of reasonable public and private-sector responses to market forces.

Yet Vice President Gore, asked whether declining inflation indicates a diminished need for radical surgery on the system, says he sees something sinister:

''Oh, I don't think there's any doubt about what it indicates. It indicates that some of those who were shamelessly exploiting the system got scared to death as health-care reform began to be debated and as the administration and allies of ours in the Congress said that they were going to put the spotlight on the worst examples of abuses in the system. And I mean there's a lot of anecdotal evidence of boards of these companies sitting around saying, hey, we better cool it and slow down these cost increases while this battle's going on.''

Does any serious person really believe inflation is significantly caused or contained by cabals of villains? Probably not, but such folderol flows from the rhetorical presidency, which will be on display in the House chamber tomorrow night.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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