Is it befitting the dignity of the office? Source: YouTube
Is it befitting the dignity of the office? Source: YouTube

Politicial scientist Justin Vaughn asks: ”Is the ice bucket challenge presidential?” He explains:

In their book about the image of Bill Clinton, Shawn and Trevor Parry-Giles describe presidentiality as a rhetoric that shapes and orders the cultural meaning of the presidency, helping to define both the office and the occupants. We expect our presidents to be heroic and serious, but we also expect them to be like us. We want them to be smart and courageous, but we also want leaders who make us want to have a beer with them. Occasionally these expectations are contradictory, which sometimes puts presidents and those who seek to become president in a bit of a pickle.

Think of it in terms of representation. Representation is a process that incorporates promises made during the campaign; the way the politician interprets those promises and acts in office with those promises in mind; and then how she explains those actions in light of the original promises and then makes another round of promises in the next campaign.

Promises, however, aren't limited to public policy commitments; they may also involve how politicians will go about their business, including their governing habits, communications with constituents, as well as promises about how they will act and, in a sense, who they will be. So Bill Clinton, when he ran for office, emphasized his commitment to stay in close touch with ordinary Americans; George W. Bush promised to “restore honor and dignity to the White House.” Those promises placed constraints on what Clinton and Bush did once elected -- subject, as all promises are, how they and their constituents interpreted those commitments. By constraints, I don’t mean that they absolutely couldn’t break them; it’s just that they knew that violating promises would involve at least the risk of a cost.

What Vaughn is telling us is that the promises politicians make, especially about style, are themselves constrained by expectations about the office: presidential promises for 2016 will be made in light of what Barack Obama did in office, what Bush and Clinton did, what Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt did. But also how they did it. Even, perhaps, how people think they did it, which may involve a large dose of fiction. Even, perhaps, what Presidents Martin Sheen and Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman and Mary McDonnell and Kenneth Branagh did.

All of which means that the question of whether the ice bucket challenge is presidential is complicated. The answer might be different for any particular president, and how he ran for office. At the same time, it also depends on the long historical build-up of the presidency as an image. Granted, it’s also a trivial example – but the same thinking that goes into answering this question is needed to understand presidential press conferences, State of the Union speeches and formats for negotiating with Congress.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.