This wasn’t the first time. Last year, during a trucking industry event, Trump jumped into the cab of a big rig and was photographed pretending to steer it, the images inadvertently evincing the feel of a kid playing with a toy, not of the nation’s chief executive. His assorted overseas trips have been filled with awkward handshakes and a moment when he appeared to “shove” Montenegro’s prime minister, Dusko Markovic, while jockeying his way to the front of a pack of NATO leaders. There was also the time he offered an Irish proverb when Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny visited the White House — only to learn the proverb probably wasn’t Irish. Two years in a row, he’s declined to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, missing an opportunity to charm a press corps that he decries as adversarial and reinforcing a narrative that he’s thin-skinned and petulant. Two years in a row, he’s passed on throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season — one of the few remaining rites of office that is uncontroversial.
These weren’t just unfortunate, clumsy flub-ups, of the sort Gerald Ford came to be known for — tripping as he descended the stairs from Air Force One or his remark, in the thick of the Cold War, that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Rather they expose a fundamental difference between Trump and his predecessors in their media operations.
Over the past century, modern presidents have increasingly relied on a strategy, as political scientist Samuel Kernell describes, of “going public” to roll out their political agenda, retail-style, directly to the American people. This strategy has allowed the executive branch to become more involved in the legislative process by swaying public opinion to justify executive input and authority. This process also required creating positions, from press secretary to director of communications, to coordinate how issues, and visuals, are presented.
In some ways, Trump should be expected to be better at this: He has a media savviness unlike his predecessors — he comes from the world of TV and he’s revolutionized, for good or ill, the use of social media in politics. But he’s struggled to translate this into effective strategies for governance. The tree-planting ceremony is instructive. As Twitter users were quick to point out, planting a tree wound up underscoring the dissonance between Trump’s administration and Macron’s after Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord last year and has since allowed his EPA to unwind a number of key environmental regulations. Instead of reinforcing a message of presidential leadership, the tree ceremony highlighted this tension.
He relishes the image of disrupter-in-chief: At a recent speech, he looked delighted to literally throw his script away. But he forfeits a lot of the symbolic power of what Theodore Roosevelt famously called the bully pulpit when he treats his perch so cavalierly.
Visuals have always been important to the presidency. But who controls the image of the president has changed. During the 19th century, political parties had this power. This was at a time when the presidency was seen by political insiders as valuable because it presented an avenue for political patronage, on which parties depended.
Over the course of the 20th century, figures like Roosevelt used the presidency as a platform to shape public opinion and expand presidential authority. Through motion pictures, staged photo opportunities on the White House lawn and radio addresses, the public felt like they got to know the president more and more each day. But those interactions were diligently controlled by a team of image professionals — figures like Bruce Barton, the PR man extraordinaire who ran Calvin Coolidge’s media operations, or Stephen Early, the journalist who became the first official press secretary for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The subsequent growth of television posed a new challenge. Would the emphasis on the visual expand interest in American politics? Or would it give advertisers a new role to “merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal,” as unsuccessful Democratic presidential contender Adlai Stevenson lamented in 1956.
It did both.
After ceding the TV edge to John F. Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon revamped his 1968 campaign by prioritizing television. Figures like Roger Ailes (later of Fox News Channel fame), Harry Treleaven, Len Garment, Bill Gavin and Ray Price worked to construct a likable Nixon persona. As Price wrote in one memo, “It takes art to convey the truth from us to the viewer.”
This didn’t stop with Nixon’s election: He made this image-making apparatus central to how he governed. His newly created White House communications office and his reelection committee carefully coordinated such efforts. The goal: to create a media image that promoted the president and advanced his agenda. Sometimes it worked, as when Nixon opened relations with China with a perfectly executed media script. Other times it failed, such as when his team initially treating the Watergate investigation as merely a PR problem.
Candidates in the 1970s relied more heavily on consultants and media advisers, shifting the power away from party insiders and rewarding those with showmanship skills, not necessarily those with political experience. Reforms to the primary system escalated this trend. As one aide for George McGovern’s presidential campaign noted, campaign managers previously stood on the sidelines, “chewed cigars and handed out turkeys.” But now they had to generate excitement, turn out crowds and attract cameras for news coverage. They had to play “media games.”
Ronald Reagan benefited from these changes and further ingrained them into White House operations. When he was shot in 1981, his media team, led by Michael Deaver and David Gergen, leveraged images of a stalwart president recovering in the hospital to win support for his pending tax legislation. His communications team strategized on how to insert images of Reagan into the nightly news while working to promote Reagan’s “line of the day.” And, as historian David Greenberg argues, photo ops “displaced the moribund routine of the presidential press conference.” State events, like welcoming dignitaries, became an opportunity to dismiss inquisition from the press and instead focus on creating a presidential aura that allowed Reagan more control in shaping overall perceptions of his administration.
His Democratic successors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, expanded these practices. The former created a “war room” to monitor the 24/7 news cycle, while the latter even ventured into the realm of online shows like “Between Two Ferns” to boost the Affordable Care Act. For both, publicity was a tool to promote their agenda, and they adjusted the bully pulpit to navigate new media, from cable television to the Internet.
So, why hasn’t Trump done a better job of harnessing the power of the symbolic presidency?
It’s true that part of Trump’s appeal to his core supporters has been his performative commitment to flouting various presidential norms — the Twitter insults, dismissively tossing paper towel rolls into the crowd at a hurricane relief center, brushing dandruff off Macron’s shoulder. That he was the un-Jeb Bush and the un-Obama worked to his advantage when he ran for president. Trump saw that breaking the rules of presidential decorum, by dismissing the traditional image-making apparatus, would appeal to Americans disaffected by politics-as-usual.
But this approach focuses inordinate amounts of attention on Trump’s whims and personality, not his leadership ability or his legislative agenda. An improvisational style may work on reality television, where the goal is to entertain audiences with unexpected twists and turns. Even then, though, such publicity ploys frequently crash and burn. The stakes are higher in the Oval Office, and the opportunities for asserting meaningful, rather than purely performative, presidential leadership abound. If the president wants to gain the approval of more than the roughly 40 percent of Americans he currently has, actually embracing the leadership and publicity potential of the bully pulpit would be a logical place to start.