The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency. Edited by Justin S. Vaughn and Jennifer R. Mercieca. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014. 279 pp.
This edited volume looks at an understudied but important concept in politics: to win an election, presidential hopefuls have to create what the editors describe as "heroic expectations" (p. 1)--but when the candidate takes office, those very expectations can set them up for failure. This scenario was clearly the case for President Barack Obama. The various contributions in Justin S. Vaughn and Jennifer R. Mercieca's new book attempt to explore this idea across a number of different angles and through a wide range of techniques.
The book opens by discussing the institutional burdens of the presidency, including chapters covering the media, challenges from religious groups when Obama was to give the commencement address at Notre Dame, and the effects of the public or the "we" in the phrase "Yes we can" (p. 50). The standout chapter in this section is by Brandon Rottinghaus, who points out the complexity of navigating the variety of constraining agents and elements for presidents. His analysis fits in well with recent research focusing on the dearth of presidential leadership while simultaneously providing a counterpoint. The chapter examines several examples of presidential leadership and shows that, while difficult, "the combination of a highly salient issue and a very popular president" can foster successful leadership (p. 82). Although much of the current literature focuses on the virtual impossibility of such leadership, this chapter both defines moments when the president can potentially lead and shows how, while uncommon, leadership and the ability to command from the bully pulpit are not, perhaps, as rare as we think.
The second section focuses on the contextual burdens of the presidency, focusing on the unique set of challenges Obama faced when entering office with a domestic economic collapse and multiple international military commitments. Of particular interest here is the work of James Arnt Aune, who reconciles two popular narratives that surround Obama while simultaneously describing why the president has been unsuccessful in persuading the American people. Through an analysis of rhetoric about the stimulus, Aune describes how Obama frequently invokes religious allusions as a way of creating loft and heroism in his speeches, even as he provides...