Illustration featuring past U.S. presidents in thought bubbles.
Illustration: Tim Madle / Library of Congress

In Allison Prasch’s rhetoric courses, students journey back in time. The associate professor of communication arts turns off the lights, instructs everyone to close their eyes and plays a recording of former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside radio chat from February 1942. It’s the one he delivered two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to explain why the U.S. was at war.

“I don’t light a candle, because I don’t want to do that in a university building,” she jokes, smiling. “But as someone living in the 21st century, we can use it to try and enter that moment in time.”

​​​​L​earning from th​e​se moments is central to teaching and research for Prasch, who studies and parses the words and rhetoric of U.S. ​p​residents. The FDR exercise is based on an oratory that’s nearly 80 years old, but it’s tied to something much more timeless and critical.

“When presidents speak to us, they are also helping us understand who we are,” Prasch says. “As a citizen, if we want to be engaged in our democracy and understand who we are and what matters within the context of U.S. politics, it’s really significant for us to understand what presidents are saying, because they’re telling us something about ourselves.”

Prasch had always been fascinated by U.S. history​ — ​her first grade-school essay was on the White House — but her research path crystallized in high school, where she happened to hear a snippet of the speech then–U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

When presidents speak to us, they are also helping us understand who we are.

Allison Prasch

“I remember being captivated by it and wanting to understand why I was captivated by it beyond that it was eloquent and moving,” she says. “I knew it had resonance for the contemporary moment — and, as it turns out, that was a central goal for Reagan and his speechwriting team.”

For presidents — and for Prasch — the medium has always been a key part of the message. FDR harnessed radio to make an impact, and former President John F. Kennedy did the same thing with television in the 1960s. Today’s media landscape is far more fragmented, making it​ ​more challenging for presidents (and presidential candidates) to ​have​ the same rhetorical impact — ​a​nd for Prasch and her students to mine meaning from their words.

“These speeches get chopped up and taken out of context,” she says. “I think it’s accurate to say that most people will experience the current president in a 10-second news clip played on social media or on the nightly news.”

Given that scenario, Prasch has re-framed her scope of study to include visual messaging elements — things like body language and the elaborate stagecraft that occurs at both State of the Union Addresses and on social media platforms.

“I think we have to ask more precise questions, and look at the bigger landscape,” she argues.

In the case of the State of the Union Address, Prasch is especially fascinated by the tradition, started by Reagan in 1982, of inviting and featuring guests in the House gallery. Modern presidents have continued to use it to display their national priorities. Back in 1982, Reagan used one of his guests — a government employee who jumped into the Potomac River to save victims of a plane crash — to counter the notion of big government with the idea of the “ordinary American hero.” Former President Barack Obama used an empty chair to signify the lives lost to gun violence.

Recent administrations have added additional curveballs to Prasch’s research. Former President George W. Bush, who used a more folksy rhetorical style, helped secure a second presidential term by uniting the nation in the speech he gave in the wake of the attack on 9/11.

According to Prasch, Obama was skilled rhetorically but also alienated voters who sometimes felt he was lecturing them. By contrast, Prasch notes that former President Donald Trump used a direct style ​and​ seemed to relish violating the norms of how presidents have typically communicated to the public. In doing so, Prasch argues, Trump radically redefined how a certain portion of the electorate understands the presidency — through the lens of an individual rather than an institution. She predicts that current President Joe Biden will likely be remembered for his unexpected trip to Ukraine to appear with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this year.

In fall 2024, Prasch will teach a class she’s creating on the rhetoric of the 2024 election, in which she, along with a group of 80 students, will examine how the words and stagecraft ​of​ U.S. presidential candidates contribute to a broader sense of national identity. There are some important historical stakes here, too.

“When I teach students why they should care about the rhetoric of the 2024 presidential election, it’s because I do believe we’re at an inflection point for U.S. politics,” she explains. “Analyzing how candidates speak to the electorate and why they make those rhetorical choices helps us understand their vision for the nation as a whole​ ​because, ultimately, the U.S. president’s words have the power to make or break our democratic process and shape who we are and want to be. The choice is up to us.”

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