When talking the talk is enough: rhetorical policymaking and George W. Bush's "call to service"

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Holtzman, Richard Gibbons

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Modern American presidents commonly make use of rhetoric, or symbolic language, to advantageously shape public opinion, which, in a representative political system, can serve as a means to nearly any end. Within the policymaking arena in particular, presidents strategically employ popular leadership and public persuasion to augment their influence within the legislative process. Consequently, presidential rhetoric is often conceived as a means to a means to an end—a tool used to rally public support for the administration’s policy agenda in an effort to indirectly pressure congressional lawmakers into falling in line behind White House initiatives. This legislative strategy, commonly referred to as “going public,” is present in the story of President George W. Bush’s “call to service” and his promotion of the USA Freedom Corps; yet it only represents one of the significant roles played by presidential rhetoric in this policymaking process. I argue that much of the rhetoric used in this case exemplifies a kind of popular leadership that was not part of a legislative strategy as we might expect, but rather a unique style of governing. More specifically, as the policymaking process unfolded and prospects for legislative success on the citizen service issue appeared increasingly limited, the Bush administration relied more and more upon symbolic language to accomplish concrete policy objectives. While the president’s leadership of public opinion in this case may originally have been conceived as an instrument of policymaking, it soon transformed into policymaking itself—more specifically, rhetorical policymaking—a direct effort to bring about attitudinal, behavioral, and cultural change within the American public by promoting “a culture of responsibility, service, and citizenship.”