A President’s Best Friend

The presidential election is just three weeks away and it remains a tight race. Most pollsters and pundits are giving President Obama the edge, though only the narrowest of ones. But President Obama, if you want to put this thing away, right here, right now, I’ve got a piece of simple, peer-reviewed advice for you: Unleash the beast.

No, not the metaphorical beast. Instead, Obama should unleash his actual, physical animal: his Portugese water dog, Bo.

Presidential pets get a fair amount of mainstream media attention. But they’ve gotten little serious analysis by scholars. This summer, a team of political scientists from George Washington University aimed to remedy this deficiency with their paper: “Unleashing Presidential Power: The Politics of Pets in the White House.”

Despite the occasional groan-inducing pun, the paper is a joy to read. It’s packed with great trivia about presidential pets (Did you know that President Garfield had a dog named Veto?) and cites memoirs “written” by prominent first pets (“Millie 1990,” “Socks 1993″). But it’s also a serious effort to answer a real political science question: How do presidents deploy their pets on the public stage?

The researchers scoured The New York Times and The Washington Post for any stories that mentioned presidential cats and dogs between January 1961 and January 2011. They classified each article according to whether it was “primarily,” “partially” or “incidentally” about the pet and then aggregated the articles by month.

Then they looked to see what was going on, at home and abroad, during each of those months. Was the U.S. at war? Was the economy tanking? Was the president mired in some sort of personal scandal?

The researchers discovered that presidential pets were more likely to appear in the news when the nation was at war or when the Commander in Chief was dogged (no pun intended) by some sort of scandal. Pet mentions were less likely during periods of national economic distress. 

Of course, these are only correlations, and there are a variety of factors that could explain them. But the authors suggest that they may reflect a careful political calculus on behalf of the White House.

…[P]ets serve as a signal of steadfastness in wartime. In times of crisis, the American people want a steady hand at the helm. How else to establish that a president is in charge than seeing the commander-in-chief confidently playing fetch with a four-legged companion in the middle of the afternoon? Likewise, we expect to see First Pets let out of the White House more often in periods of presidential scandal or monkey business. What better way to get back in our good graces than for the president to be seen, alone, with only one loyal friend? Who are we to judge the president when the one who knows his soul can forgive him?

It is not always politically wise, however, for the president to trot out the First Pet. We contend that pets serve a valuable function in hard economic times simply by playing possum and stay- ing out of sight. We surmise that diversionary pets are a political liability when their frolicking on the White House lawn in hard times might cue the public that not everyone in the country is suffering equally and that being president is not a full-time job. Does a president want to be seen playing fetch with a pampered pooch when the nation is dogged by a plummeting economy?

Given that we are in the midst of both a recession and a war, however, the findings leave President Obama in a bit of a pickle. But the most recent job numbers show that the economy is continuing, ever so slightly, to improve. And with the administration on the defensive after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya (and things seemingly headed south in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere), it may be time to bring Bo out onto the South Lawn for a nice long game of fetch.

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One Response to A President’s Best Friend

  1. Great piece. Bo was actually a gift from Senator Ted Kennedy. I know the Senator owned two Portugese water dogs himself and I think the Obama’s approved of this because they are allegedly “hypo-allergenic” and this was helpful because one of their daughters had an allergy.

    Who knew the Senator was doing him a political favor as well?