Presidential Rhetoric from Wilson to Obama: Constructing Crises, Fast and Slow.

Author:Cohn, Lora
Position:Book review

Presidential Rhetoric from Wilson to Obama: Constructing Crises, Fast and Slow. By Wesley W. Widmaier. New York: Routledge, 2015. 151 pp.

Presidential Rhetoric from Wilson to Obama offers readers an overview of one hundred years of American foreign policy, using quotations from speeches to illustrate both presidential perspective and presidential attempts to shape popular opinion. In it, Wesley W. Widmaier aligns historical and constructivist policy perspectives with Daniel Kahneman's conception of fast and slow thinking (Thinking, Fast and Slow [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011]). The combination illustrates how presidential responses to crises are cyclical in nature, as fast-thinking, crusading responses give way to slow-thinking refinement and retrenchment, even as foreign policy decisions made by one president constrain the responses of future presidents. Widmaier counsels leaders to value both the emotion and logic in arguments and to balance the emotional and logical in policy development.

In Chapter 1, the book establishes the author's argument that current foreign policy theories are inadequate to explain the cycles of emotionally driven, crusading responses to crises followed by intellectually driven policy corrections that, themselves, trigger the next crisis. These cycles are driven in part by tension between the need to advance American values and the need to preserve American power. Subsequent chapters illustrate this cycle through case studies that link foreign policy crises and presidential rhetoric about those crises. Throughout, Widmaier argues that the most successful leaders use "constructive ambiguity" (p. 2), or deliberately vague language, to balance the tension between fast (emotional) thinking and slow (intellectual) thinking.

The case study in Chapter 2 involves President Woodrow Wilson's crusade to create a new global order, suggesting that it underestimated both American and world opposition and led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's initial fear of offending the isolationist element in the United States. Widmaier argues that Roosevelt used "constructive ambiguity" throughout his 1945 Message to Congress, seeking to balance American values and the protection of American power. The ambiguity recognized that both workable solutions and setbacks were likely to occur alongside possibilities to crusade for values.

Chapter 3 studies how President Harry S. Truman overcame isolationist resistance in the country with the...

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