A recent study from George Washington University shows that amidst scandal and war, owning a pet can boost a president’s street – or in this case, Pennsylvania Avenue – credentials. But in times of economic turmoil, pets like Barack Obama’s dog, Bo, can actually damage a commander-in-chief’s reputation.
The article, entitled “Unleashing Presidential Power: The Politics of Pets in the White House,” uses “systematic analysis of voting behavior” and a “voluminous library of compelling insider accounts.” The study concludes that presidential pets are “an important political force.” The study noted that “presidents’ strategic use of their pets in public” could distract politicians from the major issues at hand.
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.
Presidents have had many pets over the course of this country’s history. Some have helped reduce stress in the White House while others have been used as political props in times of controversy. Franklin Roosevelt once accused Republicans of sullying the good name of his dog Fala. And before being elected president, Richard Nixon conducted a speech in which he referenced his dog, Checkers. The mention gave the Republican a folksy, homespun tone, even amidst accusations that he had used campaign funds to reimburse political supporters.
Forrest Maltzman, who supervised the report’s writing process, told Politico:
It was a fun project and reflects the collegiality of the political science department. Every now and then, we like to take our methodological skills and apply them to seemingly goofy, but still interesting, political questions.
But the study does have its limitations. The United States has been involved in military conflicts for the majority of the months studied in the report. Reporters also play a big role in determining how much they want to cover presidential pets which could lead to “conflating in the analysis of presidential pet-showing and newspaper pet-reporting practices.”
George Washington University’s findings are admirable. Maltzman and company have shed a light on presidential pets that readers should not simply brush off. But ultimately, a pet’s presence in the White House is only as good as its owner. Having a furry friend will not, at least in most cases, impact a voter’s impression of a president; making principled decisions will.