In a heated primary that has seen the Democratic hopefuls castigate nearly every dimension of Donald Trump’s presidency, Joe Biden perhaps lays claim to the field’s most original criticism.
In celebration of National Cat Day, Biden reframed the 2020 election as a referendum on presidential pet ownership. Making Trump’s decision not to welcome a four-legged guest to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into a wedge issue, the former vice president argued on social media that “it’s time we put a pet back in the White House.” An accompanying picture showed a smiling Biden seated with his German shepard, Major.
While little more than a light-hearted jab, Biden’s post was correct in suggesting that Trump was breaking from tradition. Only one of his predecessors has ever served as chief executive without the company of a pet. Indeed, the absence of a first family pet has been conspicuous enough that Trump commented on it at a rally earlier this year, ultimately dismissing the idea of adopting a dog as “a bit phony to me,” adding, “how would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn?”
As alluded to by Trump, pets have had a hidden role in shaping a given president’s public image—a consideration that may explain their historic popularity. Zachary Taylor kept his horse Old Whitey at the executive mansion, with the mount serving as a living reminder of his leadership during the Mexican-American War. Theodore Roosevelt, who vigorously cultivated a hypermasculine image, kept a scrappy, one-legged rooster, possibly as an analogue to his famous “Man in the Arena”.
Most famously, then-senator Richard Nixon defended himself from accusations of receiving illegal campaign contributions by stating that the only gift he was guilty of accepting was his daughter’s beloved cocker spaniel, Checkers. Responsible for saving his political career while simultaneously humanizing the normally cold and aloof senator, the Checkers Speech was an early example of the realpolitik Nixon would practice as president. Perhaps no incident has better demonstrated the full potential of the presidential pet as a political tool.
Furthermore, psychological research suggests that pet ownership can make the owner more attractive and likeable. Conversely, people perceived as ambivalent or even worse hostile to animals can be dismissed as unfriendly: Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant once suggested that “[w]e can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” When Lyndon B. Johnson lifted up his beagle, Him, by its ears on the White House lawn, the president received a firestorm of criticism, eventually forcing the chief executive to publicly apologize. The episode, retroactively dubbed Beaglegate by the American Kennel Society, actually threatened to delay the Civil Rights Act of 1964: In a private call to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, he grumbled that Everett Dirksen, the Republican Minority Leader, was focusing on the controversy rather than the legislation.
The careful pairing of president and pet can clearly have a subtle but significant impact on the success of an administration. Given the wealth of historical anecdotes and scientific data, the lack of a Trump family pet then becomes a puzzling policy decision rather than merely a peculiar idiosyncrasy. Everything suggests that, a priori, presidents benefit at least marginally from an animal companion. However, maybe Trump’s decision to abstain from pet ownership is as calculated as previous presidents’ choice to participate. A close investigation of Trump’s only petless predecessor—James K Polk— gives some credence to the idea that Trump’s lack of a pet actually plays into his own preferred public image.
Polk, who was President from 1845-1849, shared several similarities with Trump. Both were considered outsiders and dark horses when elected president. Polk was also known for speaking bluntly and for placing a premium on straightforward communication rather than eloquence. John Quincy Adams once reflected that Polk “had no wit… nothing that constitutes an orator, but confidence, fluency, and labor.” Trump too has been subject to the same sort of elite criticism, something that his supporters find not only endearing but a testament to his plainspokenness. Both men also gloat about their work ethics, with Trump’s claim that “no President ever worked harder than me” echoing Polk’s assertion 170 years earlier that “I am the hardest working man in the country.” Thus, regardless of their comfortable upbringings, both Polk and Trump attempted to foster popular perceptions of themselves as dedicated, hard-working everymen.
While it is unlikely that Trump labors as hard as Polk did—the 11th president may have quite literally worked himself to death—his most ardent supporters sincerely believe it. Republican stalwarts crowned him the most hard-working president ever in a poll released less than a year after his inauguration. That his base, which Trump has displayed an almost tunnel vision-like focus on, believes in the president’s supposedly assiduous work ethic is ultimately the most important consideration to the administration. Likewise, those same party loyalists are much more likely than the general population to classify Trump as a self-made man, with the president’s blunt language ostensibly serving as evidence of humble beginnings. Through the eyes of the Trump faithful, a pet thus represents little more than a distraction, the sort of luxury the president forwent on his meteoric rise to success. The president’s decision not to get a pet is consequently a selfless sacrifice; at the rally, Trump declared that “I wouldn’t mind having [a dog], but I don’t have any time.” Trump’s final comment on pet ownership at the rally is perhaps the most illuminating: “A lot of people say I should get a dog…. they say it is good politically….I said look, that’s not the relationship I have with my people!” As the president was subsequently met with raucous applause, the president’s point was proven and his strategy validated.
Of course, there is the very real possibility that Trump legitimately does not want a pet. This would not be the first time someone has tried to ascribe greater meaning or purpose to one of Trump’s actions. However, Trump’s recent courting of Conan, the special operations dog that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, suggests that the president clearly understands the optics of presidential pets. While having a pet may not fit Trump’s preferred image, venerating a hero dog is the sort of warm, respectful conduct his devoted have come to expect. An old dog may be learning new tricks.
Photo: Image via The White House (Flickr)