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Wood, B. Dan. The Politics of Economic Leadership: The Causes and Consequences of Presidential Rhetoric. (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007, 14.95 paperback). Pp. xv + 203. ISBN 978-0-691-13472-7. 

As quintessentially an exercise in speaking effectively and with authority, presidential addresses represent the very embodiment of the rhetorical situation, epitomising argumentative discourse, or else, “speech designed to persuade,” as famously defined by Roman orator Cicero. Although at the pinnacle of attention throughout modern times from both the direction of humanities scholars and that of social and political scientists, public speeches by heads of state have seldom formed the object of systematic enquiry. When rarely this has been the case, it was more often than not foreign or home affairs rather than economic affairs that found themselves in analytic focus. Historically, presidential speeches have thus been interrogated for the rhetorical transaction they instantiate, in studies treating preponderantly of argument weaving, image management, public approval and disproval ratings. Aptly internalising the disparaging connotation acquired by the discipline after the dawning of its classical age, of an endemically manipulative elocutionary act, mainstream literature in the field has concentrated on uncovering in deconstructionist vein the incongruities, syllogistic principles and logical fallacies at work in modern public speaking from the disciplinary perspective of culture-critical theory. Thematic, content-analysis approaches have thus been slow to emerge among an otherwise abundance of resources.

Processing a massive corpus of discourses from inaugural addresses to press conferences, Dan B. Wood’s study profiles itself from the outset as an unlikely and ambitious reference in both scale and method. Identifying the constant prevalence of economic issues in public speeches, indeed the urgency of “talking publically about the economy” (7), Wood provides an examination of economy as a pattern in the rhetoric of US presidents with a view to observe the impact of presidential remarks on economic behaviour. Departing from mainstream enquiries, Wood undertakes the daunting task of conducting a literally exhaustive statistical research by virtue of a computer-assisted approach to coding, specifically of PERL (Practical Extraction and Report Language). The implementation of advanced software resources, notably of C programming language in the actual discourse processing, distinguishes Wood’s approach from prior investigations. It enables Wood to focus on “each unique sentence” by sifting through The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, the official publication of presidential speeches, public writings and remarks by 12 presidents over 63 years. Working atomistically with segmental units of analysis rather than entire speeches, Wood is able to peruse and quantify an entire plethora of documents and textnotes impossible to cover by a single researcher based on conventional resources alone.

Bracketing aspects concerning the ways in which addresses at various points in US presidential history beg various questions, arguing that one claim or the other is true –the usual suspects of deconstructive readings – the stress here falls on the dynamics, the discoursal variables corresponding to the market fluctuations, the disjunctions between market reality and presidential emphasis. We are thus dealing with economic rhetoric viewed from the point of view of causality, not simply as discourse for political ends. As the title suggests, The Politics of Economic Leadership: The Causes and Consequences of Presidential Rhetoric is less about the pathos in presidential appeals, the ‘true and false’ claims under deconstructionist fire; or else, it is not economy as a ‘trope’ which is investigated, but as a pattern indicative of a set of core reiterative themes, of which unemployment, inflation, and the federal deficit stand out as key indicators. While not concerning himself with exposing the inductive or deductive mechanisms underlying the claims, Wood seeks to set up a “natural weighting scheme” (22) to be easily put to various statistical, structural or thematising ends. In so doing, he implicitly offers revealing insights into the ‘ethos’ presidential addresses project in exploiting the economic rhetorical setting. One of the central conclusive statements the book advances is that although not falling directly under the president’s duties, the common perception of the American audience is that economic well-being is a presidential responsibility, hence the privileged role presidential statements addressing this enjoy in the public opinion.

Over two millennia of scholastic argumentative theory and practice have probed the nature of oratory as a verbal art whose function transcends the mere rhetorical flourish of figures of reasoning and amplification. Not confined to the persuasive appeals, the three Aristotelian pistis or forms of proof, it involves a complicated dynamics, the result of the interplay of several at times ineffable relations among rhetor, text and audience, made manifest in various framings. It therefore yields to a multi-disciplinary and multi-perspectival examination.

Subject to an unprecedented crisis of confidence, presidential rhetoric has since 9/ 11 come to be infamously associated with ‘Bushspeak’, the ‘war on terror’ and what has been dubbed the ‘resurgence of the warfare state’. Attention seems thus to have duly shifted from the conscious deployment of rhetorical devices extolled by the classical liberal arts to the ethics of rhetoric, i.e. speech as an expression of ‘doubletalk’ and double standards. In sharp contrast with the flurry of ‘textualist’ interpretations taking issue with the teleological assumptions of White House discourses, Wood’s study proposes a dispassionate, in-depth diachronic perspective on US presidents’ verbal eloquence and the force of their appeal to the public. This change of gears is both refreshing and extremely topical against the background of ongoing elections.

The Politics of Economic Leadership: The Causes and Consequences of Presidential Rhetoric is without doubt a cutting-edge work, grounded in revolutionary and innovative technology that valorises pathbreaking quantitative modes of examination, using the machine coding of text documents in order to achieve exhaustive statistical analysis, indeed to quantify “every word spoken publicly” (xiv) from WWII through George W. Bush’s administration. Furthermore, insofar as it does not rely on case studies or the single speeches approach, it eliminates the markedly discursive and interpretable character of post-9/ 11 studies. As well as shedding meaningful light on presidency as an institution, illustrating how influential the figure of the president, how impactful his economic speeches, the study has the merit of enhancing awareness of the rise of rhetorical presidency in modern times. Its relevance thus extends to the spheres of both US culture politics and political culture. While certain to affect readers in all manner of fields, it stands for a unique resource for specialists, in short, fundamental research of the most immediate interest.

Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca


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