Two scholars walk into a bar during an NCAA tournament routing for the Chicago Bulls. More than four years later, those two scholars were Justin Vaughn from Boise State and Jennifer Mercieca of Texas A&M University and they recently come out with a book on Barack Obama, presidential expectations, and political rhetoric.
“About half way through the game we introduce ourselves to each other and discovered we had a common research interest. We became friends, did a couple papers together and decided to do a conference together on Obama,” Vaughn said.
At the conference, an editor approached the two about writing a book.
The conference was nearly four years ago and The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency was delayed numerous times since then.
“The delay actually benefited us. It forced us to further theorize and develop the arguments,” Vaughn said.
The book is full of essays and papers by well renowned scholars, being the author of the book meant Vaughn had to edit those scholars.
“The most difficult part was editing scholars I really respect,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn had only been a professor for about three years when he began the book, so he felt unprepared to critique some of his own intellectual heroes.
“It was really hard for me to edit people who I viewed as giants in the field,” Vaughn said. “It was really empowering.”
While Vaughn saw this as an obstacle in the beginning of his endeavors, in the end it was the best part.
“The most gratifying thing was when some of those same people who I had a tough time coming to turns editing sent notes of appreciation,” Vaughn said. “That felt good.”
Vaughn explained his book has three main points.
First, is establishing Obama’s presidency.
“A presidency is a thing that exists on a paper,” Vaughn said. “Obama was creating his own presidency through his image and really through his words.”
Second, are America’s expectations of presidents.
“We as Americans have really unfair expectations for presidents,” “These expectations can really burden presidents,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn establishes that there are three types of burdens presidents face.
The first is the institutional burden of the presidency.
“You can think about that by walking around the national mall in DC and seeing the Lincoln memorial and Washington Monument,” Vaughn said. “These presidents have to do the same thing. We are talking about this mythical heroic institution of our imagination. President Obama has to wrestle with that every day as he is a human being.”
The second burden is contextual, specific burdens of the time or era.
George Washington had to deal with contextual burdens having to do with the Constitution and setting precedence.
“Obama has to deal with economic challenges, ongoing wars, declining American influence and popularity throughout the world and polarization,” Vaughn said.
The last burden is personal.
“Those are the things Barack Obama has to face; no one else has to face those,” Vaughn said. “The most obvious one is his race. He is the first African American president.”
The overarching argument of the book is those burdens cause presidents to fall short of their expectations.
“Basically, in the face of these heroic expectations, presidents still have to perform the presidency in a way that we find acceptable,” Vaughn said. “All while doing so, shouldering these three different kinds of burdens that all exist simultaneously.”