What’s the political message behind Obama’s new dog Sunny?

August 21, 2013

The Obamas’ dogs, Bo, left, and new addition Sunny. (Pete Souza/The White House)

In the hours since she joined the first family, 1-year-old Sunny — the Obamas’ new Portuguese water dog — has frolicked on the South Lawn of the White House, played with Bo and sat for lots of photo ops.

But when you live at the White House, things are rarely so uncomplicated. Presidential pets have been trotted out for everything from highly popular campaign photos to eponymous children’s books. And as George Washington University’s Jim Lebovic discovered in a 2012 study, aptly titled “Unleashing Presidential Power: The Politics of Pets in the White House,” the public tends to see the White House dog at very specific times.

The Post called Lebovic to talk about his work. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

So you did a study on presidential pets a few years ago that was a bit tongue in cheek.

Well, as a journalist, you know you can’t write anything about animals without using puns. Initially I protested the puns, but I was loudly vetoed by my co-authors. And then once the floodgates opened, they just kept coming. I may have contributed a few in the end, myself.

The problem was, all the jokes made some blogs and news organizations think the research itself was a gag. It was actually quite sound. We collected news stories on presidential pets, mostly dogs, going all the way back to the Roosevelt administration, and then put that in the computer with all the public opinion and economic data that political scientists usually employ.

(Lebovic et al)
(Lebovic et al)

Did you find any patterns?

We discovered that when the economy and the president’s approval ratings are up, the presidential pet makes more public appearances. When those things are doing poorly, or when the unemployment rate and inflation rates are high in a particular month, the dog will disappear from public view the next month.

Which means?

Well one interpretation, and one we discussed in the paper, is that the president doesn’t want to be seen frolicking with a pampered pooch when the nation is suffering. It sends the wrong message. But in reality, it might tell us more about news coverage — when times are good and reporters like the president, they’ll produce softer, more human-oriented stories.

Or dog-oriented stories, as the case may be.

Humanizing, let’s say. They humanize the president.

Is the Obamas’ new dog supposed to send that kind of message, do you think?

Let’s put it this way — and I should say, I’m standing next to my 55-pound standard poodle, whom I love dearly, as I say this — if I had a large, grassy lawn like the president does and a staff to take care of them, I would probably think about getting another dog. Sunny looks like a wonderful acquisition.

So it’s not a PR ploy?

Is the first family aware that pets have a positive impact on their public perception? They’re savvy politicians. Of course they’re aware that pets have a humanizing influence. When the president gets out of his helicopter and there’s a dog there to greet him, that’s something people can relate to.

But given the fact that the president’s not seeking reelection and he has his hands full with the NSA scandal, the deteriorating situations in Egypt and Syria, and other possible crises around the world, my suspicion is that the dog will have zero effect on public opinion. My suspicion is that he got a dog for the same reason most people get dogs: He wanted one.

Do you think we — the media, the public — pay too much attention to this sort of thing?

In Washington, unfortunately, we have the tendency to politicize everything. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a dog is just a dog. Despite my important research into presidential pets, I do think we probably make way too much of this. We should remember the extent to which political people have normal human needs, motives and families that drive their decisions.

Are you planning any more research on presidential pets?

Actually, most of my work relates to arms control and nuclear weapons. I have a book coming out on strategic nuclear arms control with Johns Hopkins next month.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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