Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The moral and symbolic power of the president

By Helen Pringle - posted Friday, 21 November 2008

The question that a lot of people are asking after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States is what difference can he make? And in particular, will the colour of his skin make any difference - or will Obama turn out to be a fairly conventional president, no different from most of the other 43 presidents of the United States except with a black face?

Many commentators have speculated that Obama will not be able to accomplish a great deal, and that he is hence sure to disappoint the high expectations he has raised in the hearts of his supporters. For example, on November 4, Geoffrey Garrett speculated that if Obama were to be elected, “Sky-high expectations at home and abroad would descend on Obama's wiry frame”. A few days after the election, Garrett repeated that “Given the sky high expectations on Obama, no mortal, no matter how far above the water he walks, could meet all those expectations”.

There is actually little evidence to suggest that even Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters in the US think that he has the ability to pay their gas or mortgage costs, raise the dead and heal the sick, or walk far above the water. More importantly, the assessment that Obama will not be able to meet the expectations that are held for his presidency rests on a misunderstanding of the American presidency.


There is only so much that any president can do, given the checks and balances of the American political system. A president cannot make laws, and what he can accomplish, in domestic affairs at least, is bounded by the support he can muster from Congress, and is bounded by the limits imposed by courts.

And that is as it should be in a democracy. As Rod Tiffen recently emphasised, in a talk at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, a politics of checks and balances is much to be preferred over rule by an all-powerful autocrat able to impose his will and policies on the populace.

Along with the formal authority attached to the role, however, a president also has a moral or symbolic power that is chiefly manifested in what he says and how he speaks, particularly in the course of speaking directly to the people. President Theodore Roosevelt had this power in mind when characterising the White House as a “bully pulpit”: a platform from which policy could be advocated, but also one from which people could be inspired to action, and perhaps more importantly, moved to thought.

The effectiveness of the moral, or symbolic power of the president comes as much from the persona of the president as from the office of the presidency. A president embodies the collective values of the republic, and reflects those values back to the people. For example, even with all his success at economic policy, President Clinton used the moral power of the presidency very poorly, in reflecting dishonesty and lack of integrity.

James Carville famously advised President Clinton that it’s “the economy, stupid”. And there is no doubt that the economy was issue number one in the 2008 election too. People did cast their votes on economic issues, but the significance of the result went far beyond bread and butter.

In his victory speech, Obama invoked mythic themes in the history of generations who had known both desperation and glory in “the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that ‘We Shall Overcome’.”


Walter Fisher has noted that the presidency “is a dramatic place, a stage for conflict between heroes and villains, a ground for myth, ritual and legend”. It is a place where the meaning of the past is at stake, even more than the direction of the future.

Nobody listening to Obama’s speeches could miss the themes of time and history redeemed, in the references beyond Selma and Montgomery to Gettysburg and Antietam, beyond Martin Luther King Jr to Abraham Lincoln.

Barack Obama’s supporters invoked not only Abraham Lincoln, but also Shakespeare’s kings, clearly remembered from their schooldays.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Earlier version entitled "The moral power of the president" Published by ABC News, November 6, 2008. 

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

11 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Helen Pringle

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Helen Pringle
Article Tools
Comment 11 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy