America Desperately Needs a New Age of Moral Leadership

Photograph of an empty podium and teleprompter
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The incumbent president, Donald Trump, rages, reads words that he doesn’t believe from a teleprompter, and rages again. The president-elect, Joe Biden, calls on Americans to rise above “the flames of hate and chaos” and bring back democracy, decency, and the rule of law to their wounded land. This is the presidential voice Biden has been preparing since he began his campaign to “restore the soul of America” in the spring of 2019. He speaks of commitment and covenant, of dreams and suffering, of sacrifice and love. He is working to build a presidency that not only embodies his own capacity for empathy but assumes a voice of moral leadership in a wrenching and disjointed time. The cadences are familiar. This is the way most American presidents have sounded since the beginning of the 20th century.

The question is, in this time of anger and division, will anyone listen? Despite the foreboding in the air, the answer is yes. Presidential moral leadership is most, not least, effective in moments of crisis. Acute crises give presidents the space and urgency they need to be heard. Sustained leadership can follow when presidents lean into long-term crises already coursing beneath the surface of day-to-day events. Even in this fractured country, Biden has a real chance of becoming what he hopes to be: a president whose voice lifts and redirects the nation. But he must seize the moment now, and use the moral power it gives him.

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Trump hated the sermonic style of presidential speaking—the “hopey-changey stuff” that Sarah Palin once pilloried so savagely. He chafed at confinement to a speechwriter’s scripted phrases just as he disdained complete sentences that stick to one topic from beginning to end. He was a listless speaker outside the setting of a crowd, where, swelled up with the energy it gave him, he pinballed from one call-and-response to another. He cheered and insulted. He bragged and complained, and, as we know all too well, he even veered into full-blown insurrectionary speech. He didn’t care that his enemies called him a liar or that they recoiled from his violation of the norms of presidential speech. And Trump’s partisans responded with relief and adulation. In him, they heard a president who was not trying to remake their souls but attempting to give a megaphone to their grievances: a president speaking an angry, prideful language that they knew from everyday experience.

The blend of sermon and political speech that Trump has been eager to demolish was not set at the nation’s beginning. Presidents did not often speak in public before the 20th century, and when they did, their language was formal and lawyerly, not soaring and inspirational. Fearful of the potential for demagoguery in the presidency, the Constitution’s writers had wanted just this sort of rhetorical modesty. Andrew Jackson, who helped steamroller a new, much more emotional popular politics into being among white male American voters, ended his first inaugural address by confessing his inadequacy for the position to which he had been chosen. Addressing a nation still suffering from the aftershocks of a major economic depression, William McKinley began his inaugural address in 1897 by dryly advising that the financial system needed “some revision.” The exception to this restrained form was Abraham Lincoln. But his language of elevated moral appeal often clashed with his listeners’ expectations. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is a striking example. Revered for its eloquence now, it seemed to many at the time too cryptic and too remote from the immediate questions of the moment to be adequate to the occasion.

The birth of the modern presidency as a platform for moral preaching began with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt filled his presidential speeches with talk of purpose and “perils,” “duties” to ourselves and others, “justice and generosity,” “courage” and “endurance,” “lofty ideals,” and the strength of “character” that a free people needed. He spoke not as a lawyer might, but as if he were talking straight to the heart of the American nation. From that font his successors drew the phrases and tone that became the voice of the modern presidency. Presidents surveyed a world of challenges; they marshaled the moral energies of the people; they prodded and encouraged; they asked Americans to look beyond themselves and their petty divisions. Woodrow Wilson used the power of the new rhetorical presidency to fuel a crusade to save democracy in Europe. Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to the same tropes first to address the economic crisis of the 1930s and then to mobilize support for the Second World War. John F. Kennedy seized the presidential megaphone to rally the nation to a more intense commitment to the Cold War. George W. Bush forged his 9/11 response in the same terms.

It is easy to imagine that that era of the sermonizing presidency is now exhausted. Biden will take office confronted by a larger core of irreconcilable voters than has contested any presidential election since secession. Partisanship rides extremely high. Anger-filled conspiracy thinking flourishes on the internet. More broadly, a deep libertarian streak has intensified enormously on both the left and the right since Biden’s political career began in the early 1970s. That heightened stress on self and choice cannot but complicate Biden’s hope to strengthen the instruments of government through which Americans look out for the good of one another.

Finally, the media contexts within which presidents must now work have changed dramatically as well. Theodore Roosevelt took office in the midst of extraordinary expansion and consolidation of the nation’s newspaper industry, and he took brilliant advantage of the press to amplify his words and actions. The still-novel powers of radio put Franklin D. Roosevelt’s voice into households across the country, just as television did for Kennedy’s. Biden’s voice will have a much more difficult time penetrating through today’s decentered and intensely politicized media environment. Under these circumstances, imagining that the right words might reach the “soul” of the nation may be wholly illusory.

But even in eras of intense political division and media partisanship, use of the presidential pulpit has at times succeeded. Franklin D. Roosevelt was as polarizing a figure as any in the 20th century when he came into office in 1933. The 40 percent of the population that had voted against him was unforgiving, many to the very end. But Roosevelt’s words managed to touch the hearts of the Depression masses, helping preclude the slide into despair that many feared was imminent. Kennedy came through a squeaker of an election—filled with smears and charges that no Catholic could be trusted to be a loyal American—to become the voice for a new, postwar generation. Wilson led a starkly divided nation into the moral crusade of engagement in the Great War.

In all these cases, what gave the presidents’ words their power was crisis and context. In normal times, citizens’ souls don’t ask for preaching. Moral leadership succeeds when existing institutions, shaken by crisis, no longer seem adequate to their task. The shock arrival of new forms of monopoly capitalism gave Theodore Roosevelt his pulpit. The global economic collapse of the 1930s passed that opportunity on to FDR. The Cold War opened the occasion for the young, barely known Kennedy. The eruptive force of Black Americans’ freedom demands helped Lyndon B. Johnson move from a consummate political dealmaker to a public champion of a still wider “war” on poverty and economic injustice. The financial meltdown of 2008 gave wings to the words of the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

Crises change the conditions of receptivity. They open a hole that Biden hopes his appeal to the soul of America will fill. At least for a time. Because the counterintuitive dynamic in the relationship between crisis and public receptivity is that the most acute crises do not always produce the most enduring periods of presidential persuasiveness. Short-term crises can temporarily rearrange the political landscape. The nation rallies to the emergency that a president’s words enunciate. Its citizens forego their immediate interests and preexisting divisions, and throw themselves into volunteer service and patriotic sentiments. But then the occasion passes, and the words the president still enunciates, urging sacrifice, compassion, and public-spiritedness, are left to blow idly in the wind.

The inability of the Obama administration to sustain the power of its moral force after the fiscal crisis of 2008–09 is a vivid example. Its response to the economic meltdown was far from perfect, as critics from every camp quickly insisted, but for the short-term purposes of averting a new Great Depression, it worked. Obama’s own eloquence didn’t falter after 2009. But he could not successfully transfer his persuasive powers to an expert-driven health-insurance proposal that was not widely enough perceived to answer a national crisis. By the time Obama found the words to articulate health security as part of a broader ethical crusade, his exceptionally high favorability ratings in public-opinion polls had evaporated.

The collapse of George W. Bush’s assertion of moral leadership was even starker. No previous modern president had polled higher than Bush did in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. His ratings were still exceptionally high at the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And then they cratered. There were no weapons of mass destruction to be found. But more important, no national consensus supporting the country’s long-term role in the Middle East existed to give a foundation to Bush’s presidential preaching. A massive response to a short-term crisis had been engineered and applauded. But the opportunity that crisis created was over, leaving Americans to wonder why they were trying to police the Middle East in the first place.

Presidential moral leadership has been more lasting when it has intervened in profound crises that already left the country deeply unsettled. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency was not a response to the stock-market crash of 1929, though textbook history still paints it that way. It was a response to three inconclusive, anxiety-filled years of debate and turmoil over how to restore jobs and stability to a nation whose economic house had fallen in on it. A similar intervention into a long-term crisis propelled Kennedy’s inaugural words into the public consciousness in 1961. There was nothing new in Kennedy’s announcement that the nation was ready to bear any burden in the cause of global freedom—nothing except the way his words took energy from long-standing anxieties about the ability of Americans to rise above absorption in their new consumer culture and meet the Cold War’s challenges. Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of Black Americans’ freedom struggle in the spring of 1965 did not simply put the moral force of the presidency behind a short-term crisis. What gave Johnson’s words their power was the moral clarity of their intervention into a massive, long-standing, and broadly recognized wound in the nation’s democracy and its reputation in the world.

The lesson for Biden in these examples is that he must think big if he wants to speak to the souls of Americans. Following Trump’s intensely polarizing presidency and final insurrectionary calamity, Biden’s message of decency, truth, constitutional integrity, and care for one another is more imperative than ever. And it will go far. Biden has the public character to make that message stick even against the fusillade of attacks that have already been launched against the very legitimacy of his election. But in the long term, Biden’s message of calm and decency will not suffice. He needs to hitch his bid for moral leadership to a crisis still bigger than the Trump disaster, bigger than the COVID-19 emergency, bigger than expertise or bipartisanship.

Many hope that Biden will focus his presidency’s long-term rhetorical power on the scandal of persistent structural racism, laid bare more vividly than ever before by last week’s eruption of the angry white-power politics that runs beneath so much of Trumpism. Others hope that he will bring it to bear on the catastrophe of accelerating climate change. The structural crises of contemporary American democracy—undisguised voter suppression, blatant gerrymandering, an unrepresentative Electoral College system, and an unchecked avalanche of lies in political advertising and on social media—cry out for reform.

Biden needs to commit his presidency strongly to all of these issues. But the long-term crisis that is most broadly and most acutely felt in households on both sides of the political divide is the ever-growing gap between those at the top of the American scale of income and privilege, and all the rest. Here, the sense of a festering wound is already widely shared, waiting for a president to articulate its moral costs as well as its economic ones. The median household income has barely risen in real terms since the 1980s. Most Americans are no longer confident that the next generation will do better than they have themselves. They worry about their own foothold in the 21st-century economy, where corporate restructuring has made downward mobility an everyday fact of life, even as the aggregate GDP level soars and stock-market wealth booms. These were among the acutely felt grievances to which Trump opened his megaphone; they fueled the energies of Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Where masses of Americans feel left behind by the economy and alienated from politics, every aspect of a racially just and democratic society is at risk.

Biden’s measures to address the long-term crisis of constrained and unequal opportunity will be far more incremental than progressives might wish, given Biden’s political temperament and the limited possibilities that his narrow majority in Congress will afford him. His words must be bigger than his actions. He must convince Americans that he sees the stagnation of the life chances for too many Americans with a moral intensity that is deeper and truer than that of the failed president he defeated. If he wants to speak to the souls of Americans, he must bring the full resources of the rhetorical presidency to bear on the crisis of unequal opportunity. For a nation to respond to the words of a presidential preacher, the subject must be as broadly and deeply felt as the rhetoric’s moral intensity demands.