Study calls presidential pets a ‘political liability’

President Barack Obama's dog Bo should probably stay out of the media spotlight while the economy continues to recover, GW researchers concluded in a political science journal article. | Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

While pundits say a poor economy could walk all over President Barack Obama’s reelection chances, GW researchers conclude something else could hurt his campaign: walking his dog, Bo.

The three professors, who dug through a trove of “presidential pet literature,” wrote in the July edition of the journal PS: Political Science and Politics that furry White House residents typically stay out of the spotlight during sagging economic climates  – and for good reason.

Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman, who is also a political science professor, led the team of researchers.

“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,” the research team wrote.

During war and scandal, presidential pets are splashed across newspaper pages, the researchers wrote. But during harsh economic times, dogs are out of the picture and are a perceived political liability.

Politically, presidential pets “are unquestionably a mixed breed with an unusual combination of skills. In addition to their insider influence, pets serve the president in hard economic times by staying out of sight; in challenging political and military times, pets stand alongside the president as a reassuring public presence.”

The peer-reviewed article, titled “Unleashing Presidential Power: The Politics of Pets in the White House,” traces the politicization of presidential pets back to a 1944 speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The researchers also noted President Richard Nixon’s 1952 “Checkers” speech – a political salvation for the then-presidential candidate – and Obama’s promise during his nomination-clinching speech to get his daughters Sasha and Malia a dog.

“We view our findings as an important contribution to a research program that will bring the dog into political analysis,” they team concluded.

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