Only in America: the United States struggles through a withering recession, and yet the personal attire of Barack and Michelle Obama creates a national controversy. Barack Obama is accused of turning the Oval office into a locker room for discarding his suit jacket. Michelle Obama raises eyebrows for baring her tone arms. Why all the fuss? I’ll tell you why: they’re breaking a silly but very potent code of presidential conduct. Call it the presidential brand promise. Here it is in a nutshell:
1. (For presidents): I will look better than you. It’s OK for local politicians to look rumpled. But different rules apply in the Oval office We want our presidents to look better than we do — buttoned up, not a hair out of place. We expect presidents to be the fine china in our homes. In the 1970s, two presidents broke the rule of looking presidential and were promptly ushered out of office after serving one term. Poor Jerry Ford had the misfortune of doing something we all do: stumbling and tripping in public, as Chevy Chase famously noticed. Sorry Jerry, we can slip on the ice and fall on our butts in public, but you can’t even stub a toe. Then came Jimmy Carter, bless his peanut farming soul. He also broke the presidential brand promise in a major way when walked in the inauguration parade and then later addressed the nation wearing a cardigan sweater. Bad moves. Apparently he failed to understand that although it was OK for him to act like a humble farmer from Georgia while running for office, he couldn’t look like a man of the people while in office. Even worse, he started doing goofy things — unpresidential things — like fighting killer rabbits. By contrast, Bill Clinton, another good old boy from the South, never failed to look presidential, even in the face of public scandal for his personal excesses. Bill Clinton was true to the presidential brand promise. He might have turned the Oval office into a cheap motel room, but he kept it behind closed doors. The lesson: presidents will be tolerated for many personal transgressions so long as they keep them behind closed doors. But we just don’t want someone who looks like an eccentric uncle negotiating nuclear arms treaties.
2 (For First Ladies): I will make no waves. We want our First Ladies to be as harmless as do-thing vice presidents. It’s acceptable, even desirable, for First Ladies to champion feel-good causes like education and clean living (“Just say no” to drugs, right Nancy?) But First Ladies cannot draw undue attention to themselves by acting out or speaking out. Mary Todd Lincoln broke the presidential brand promise repeatedly, most notably for publicly defending the president and taking strong stances about issues like slavery. History has branded her a lunatic for her troubles. Jackie Kennedy might have been a fashion trend setter, but she didn’t threaten anyone, nor did Pat Nixon. Poor Rosalynn Carter tried to make no waves, but then Jimmy made the mistake of pointing out that he listened to her counsel and invited her to attend cabinet meetings, prompting plenty of hand wringing over her — gasp — influence over the president. (Using contemporary marketing vernacular, today we would say Jimmy was a social influencer of Rosalynn’s personal brand, for the worse.) Now, there’s something about Michelle’s bare arms that scares her detractors. You know what they’re thinking: do her bare arms hint at a certain recklessness and boldness in the political and social realm? Even worse, will she insist her husband start wearing jogging suits when going toe to toe someday with Putin?
I hope Mr. and Mrs. Obama get even more bold and reckless. All brands need to be refreshed now and then. And the presidential brand is long overdue.