Honors Program


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Murphy, A., and Kirk, J. 2022. Presidential Rhetoric in Times of Health Crises: From President Eisenhower to President Trump. Undergraduate Honors Thesis. University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Copyright Abbi Murphy, Justin Kirk 2022.


Three major health crises in American history include the polio epidemic in the 1950s, the Ebola crisis in 2014, and the coronavirus in 2020. Each of these viruses evolved under a different President, from President Eisenhower to President Obama to President Trump. Each of these presidents spoke to the people on their respective crisis, and here I examine speeches, addresses, and social media posts in order to examine the rhetorical strategies that each President utilized. Each of them had a similar goal in mind, to eradicate the disease and quell the public’s fears. However, they all had advantages and disadvantages that helped or harmed their message. While President Eisenhower faced issues of vaccine hesitancy, he also had his military reputation on his side. His rhetorical strategies then reflected some of these advantages and disadvantages, such as stressing a trust in American science, comparing the virus to a physical fight, and an appeal to common sense. In comparison, President Obama’s rhetoric on the Ebola crisis presented a few similarities to President Eisenhower’s, such as both calling for Congressional action and outlining a clear governmental response plan. However, President Obama employed different rhetorical strategies, such as that of appealing to American nationalism, highlighting preventative measures, and describing personal anecdotes. This was due to the assets and barriers that he faced, like the fact that he was in his second term but also had a heavy critical media presence. Lastly, I analyze these same factors against President Trump’s rhetoric on the coronavirus. Comparisons between President Trump’s themes and President Obama’s included a further pressure to trust American scientists. However, rhetorical strategies that President Trump applied were emphasizing American exceptionalism in all areas, especially the economy, as a red herring to distract from the virus, blame shifting, and minimizing the overall effects of the coronavirus. These strategies reflected the advantages and obstacles that he faced, the ability to set the agenda, but also his public image contrasting with that of a pandemic.