Appropriateness of Place Considered: The Changing Presidential Forum

All stories have a setting. The Wizard of Oz takes place in, well, Oz (and Kansas). The Matrix in the Matrix and Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. A setting provides a context and a grounding for the details of a story – much like a good base on a cake provides the structure for frosting and other sweet frivolities. The setting also influences one’s actions – physical, mental, and spoken. What one says in front of their parents is probably quite different than in the local dive.

We all know the above to be true. Presidents too have settings. The White President Wilson League Speech - Pueblo, COHouse, Oval Office, Camp David, the East Room, etc. There is an appropriateness of forum for perceived “presidentialness,” much as the timing of a response (called kairos in ancient Greece) matters in how the response is interpreted. Setting is an integral element of Bitzer’s rhetorical situation. Place matters to the exertion of presidential power and to the institution’s perceived power by the audience. The traditional Oval Office address or well of the House State of the Union are now accompanied by a multitude of places – the basketball court, talk radio, Oprah, Men’s Health, or a Gulf Coast beach. The place sends a message and simultaneously muddies the message in an increasingly fragmented, new media landscape.

Presidential ubiquity is partly a result of a multitude of places and options for a president, many chosen and others not, many appropriate and others not quite fitting the content of an utterance. The president behind his desk in the Oval Office portrays the image of power and authority while on the basketball court, the image of an everyday man and a team player. What happens when the president has no control over the appropriateness of setting? For example, a citizen watches Sports Center, flips the TV to the president, and surfs to a Charmin commercial. Or a college student watches the weekly presidential address on YouTube, tweets about their wild Friday night, and then views pictures of that night on Facebook. The appropriateness of the setting gets blurred – what was once a solitary action (watching the president) is now juxtaposed with other stimulating actions.

Rod Hart mentions this in his 1999 book Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter. Hart recognized that a multitude of settings places the president in sometimes “awkward” visual and auditory settings. This could impact presidential power and the perceived dignity one owes the institutional presidency. I think the same concept can be applied to virtual communications via the internet. The president, as a ubiquitous and often portable presence (think iPods and iPads) can now be seen everywhere, watched everywhere, and sandwiched between “Jersey Shore” and Perez Hilton.

Appropriateness of setting matters to the institutional credibility and legitimacy of the presidency. President Obama will appear on “The View” this week, the first a sitting president will grace the stage with the likes of Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg (Obama appeared on “The View” during the 2008 campaign). This is the inspiration for my musings on place, space, and the rhetorical presidency. Reacting to Obama’s pending appearance, Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Ed Rendell said, “I think the president should be accessible, should answer questions that aren’t pre-screened, but I think there should be a little bit of dignity to the presidency.” The CNN article characterizes the show as a “daytime gabfest.”

Breaking into new media formats always causes resistance by some. The 1992 campaign and subsequent election of Bill Clinton included candidate appearances on “Larry King Live,” “The Arsenio Hall Show,” and numerous call-in programs as documented in landmark research on new media by Richard Davis and Diana Owen. President George H.W. Bush thought these type of shows demeaned the presidency, but he ended up using these settings anyway. Appearing on Oprah or announcing your candidacy on late night television (ala Fred Thompson) is now par-for-the-course for the most powerful position in the world.

These seemingly innocuous formats may be detrimental for presidential power and persuasive influence. Governor Rendell has a point – appropriateness of forum matters. When the president allows his power and influence to be lowered to the level of the daytime talk show host, he becomes not just another celebrity, but a political dilettante fighting for his 10 minutes of attention. While academic researchers (Mark Wattenberg) have chronicled the disappearance of the presidential television audience amidst fragmented formatting options, the president is left scrambling to find someone, anyone who will listen. So the president discloses emotions, converses, talks about weddings and family, boxers and briefs, and the White House garden. Idle conversation trumps substance, further perpetuating conversational styles in more serious formats (see Jamieson’s Eloquence in an Electronic Age and Hart’s Seducing America). The common man everyone wants to have a beer with image must have obvious effects on psychological respect and reverence for the institution and the person that occupies it.

The institutional presidency has suffered numerous setbacks since the Watergate scandal (Iran Contra, Monica Lewinsky, four major economic recessions, Katrina, BP oil). These have diminished the power of the president to lead and to persuade. An increase in persuasive appeals, public appearances, and speeches has only quickened this trend. The results can be seen in the minimal public opinion movement following a major presidential address and the disappearance of any polling bump within several news cycles. A ubiquitous presidency equates to little staying power with presidential words. More words mean less. More and various spaces can further cheapen devalued persuasive currency. It’s time for the president to get off the sofa and take the helm.

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