WASHINGTON - The Obama White House is addicted to the “unprecedented.”
Perhaps it was a sign when President Barack Obama sat down in January to record his first weekly address and announced: “We begin this year and this administration in the midst of an unprecedented crisis that calls for unprecedented action."
What has followed is declaration after declaration of “unprecedented” milestones. Some of them are legitimate firsts, like the president’s online town hall at the White House in May.
But others the president wins merely on a technicality, and several clearly already have precedents.
The White House’s announcement of its unprecedented — “a first by an American president visiting China” — town hall meeting with students in Beijing, for instance, drew a collective eye roll in certain circles back home, namely among former aides to President George W. Bush, who had already been grumbling about Obama’s carefree application of “unprecedented.”
“I think I attended a town hall with President Bush in China,” former Bush adviser Karen Hughes quipped with a laugh, recalling a 2002 Bush speech in Beijing at which he took questions from the audience. “I thought: Were they asleep? Or were they dreaming? I remember standing and watching President Bush engage in a town hall that I believe was televised.”
President Bill Clinton also took questions from Chinese students at an event during a trip to the country in 1998, then did a radio call-in show in Shanghai the next day.
The White House’s characterization of Obama’s Beijing town hall mirrored the description staff gave Obama’s address to students on the first day of school, which the Education Department called “historic.” Yet President George H.W. Bush delivered an address to students, as did President Ronald Reagan. Maybe it was the streaming online video of Obama’s speech to students that was unprecedented?
Either way, for a president whose approach to exaggerated critiques of his administration is to “call ‘em out” and who has made an issue of forcing corporate America to expose the fine print, one wonders whether his use of “unprecedented” would pass his own litmus test.
Indeed some of his efforts are unprecedented. Obama noted, for example, that world leaders took “unprecedented steps” on nuclear nonproliferation at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council that he was the first U.S. president ever to chair.
But at times Obama’s use of “unprecedented” is questionable.
Obama has said he “took office amid unprecedented economic turmoil” and that the situation demanded “unprecedented international cooperation” and resulted in his signing of the “unprecedented" Recovery Act. Yet it seems the Great Depression and the New Deal might be considered precedents for the current economic crisis and the $787 billion stimulus plan.
And Obama’s promise of “an unprecedented effort to root out waste and inefficiency” sounded a lot like promises of past presidents.
“I believe the Congress and the American people approve my goals of economy and efficiency,” President Lyndon B. Johnson told Congress in 1965. “I believe they are as opposed to waste as I am. We can and will eliminate it.”
On bipartisanship, Obama raised a few eyebrows when during his first press conference he cited “putting three Republicans in my Cabinet” as “something that is unprecedented.”
“He is right — assuming he's talking specifically about selecting three Republicans (and not Democrats in a Republican administration) simultaneously and during the first term (not over the course of a presidency),” the National Journal pointed out. The magazine noted that Johnson, Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt had three Republicans serving in their Democratic administrations. Republicans Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower had three Democrats serving in theirs.
The White House stands by its claims.
“During his first year in office, President Obama has taken historic and, in some cases, unprecedented actions to fulfill his campaign promise to change business as usual in Washington and confront the wide-ranging challenges facing America,” said deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
“Cynics may say they’ve heard it all before, but the progress we’ve made on health care reform, energy reform and transparent government demonstrates these changes — in the view of the American people — can’t happen soon enough,” he said.
And when it comes to the Chinese town hall, White House officials say the ex-Bush aides have it all wrong — saying it was the first full-blown “town hall” by a U.S. president in China (because Clinton and Bush took questions after a speech). It was also the first U.S. presidential event streamed to an Internet audience in China and the first with questions from the Internet. And it garnered the biggest viewership, with 55 million online hits alone — making its audience unprecedented, oneofficial said.
The desire to be seen as treading on an unbeaten path is a part of the Obama brand. His candidacy was built on the notion that his rise to the presidency followed no footprints. He wasn’t a Clinton or a John McCain. He had a uniqueness that made him an unprecedented, if not unlikely, candidate.
That theme, which is driven by his personal narrative, has carried over into the White House. And in the context of the something-to-prove drive of a young president with scant executive experience, the Obama White House has used “unprecedented” as a rhetorical means through which he has asserted himself.
It’s also a reflection of the president personally.
“It says how very unique he feels he is,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. Hess described Obama as “a man who sees himself as unprecedented in every way … given his background — his mother, his father, where he grew up, how he became president of the United States.”
“Of course, biblically, there’s nothing new under the sun, and for most everything he’s done as president there is some precedent for somewhere,” he added. “What he does is variations on a theme.”
Still, Hess said, the word doesn’t have “great political currency.”
“I don’t think he gets special credit for being unprecedented, but he thinks that way,” he said. “I think that tells us more about him than really anything else about how he runs the White House.”
Andrew Jackson was the first president to use the word “unprecedented,” in 1831, according to a search of the archives of The American Presidency Project. For more than 100 years afterward, presidents used the word “unprecedented” in 72 speeches and mostly reserved it for major addresses.
But since FDR talked of meeting “the unprecedented task before us” during his first inaugural address in 1933, presidents have used the word on almost 2,000 occasions to describe everything from the death of Elvis Presley (Carter) to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (Reagan).
Obama has relied on “unprecedented” in more than 90 instances, using the word at least 129 times in everything from major addresses to small speeches, statements, memorandums and proclamations. (Bush, by contrast, used the word 262 times over eight years.)
Obama has used “unprecedented” to describe his efforts on science research, his plan for the auto industry and his administration’s ethics, transparency and accountability guidelines.
He has promised an “unprecedented commitment” to education, to developing clean energy and “to preserving America's treasured landscapes,” which, Obama has noted, have seen “unprecedented droughts” and “unprecedented wildfires” in the face of climate change.
There has been “unprecedented consensus” on health care reform under Obama’s watch, as well as “the unprecedented intervention of the federal government to stabilize the financial markets” and an “unprecedented” bank review.
His administration has also taken “unprecedented action to stem the spread of foreclosures,” Obama said, including the creation of “an unprecedented fund, in partnership with the Federal Reserve,” to get credit flowing.
“I wonder if they believe that everything is really unprecedented, or is it just their talking point,” said former Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who is among those smarting over Obama’s use of unprecedented. “This rhetoric is more understandable during a campaign, but I’m not sure it’s going to get them far while governing when the facts don’t always agree.”
It arguably started during the campaign, when Obama’s team was clocking one unprecedented milestone after another: his trip to Europe, his Internet connectedness, his fundraising strategy, his rallies, his crowds. Obama’s election was historic. His inauguration broke attendance records that reportedly required “unprecedented” security.
And sure, once in office, the administration faced a massive economic crisis. And, yes, the Obama team brought the White House onto Facebook and Twitter.
But by applying the “unprecedented” label to a so many scenarios in government — from transparency to efforts to reduce the environmental impact of mountaintop coal mining — the Obama administration risks outsize expectations and overhype.
“It comes close to a certain arrogance,” Hughes said, “as if this president has done things that no other president has ever done before — except that they have done them before.”
Obama even treads on unprecedented territory in ways he’s not trying to highlight. At this point in his presidency he’s spent more time on the golf course, for instance, than his immediate predecessor. He’s also attended more fundraisers. And sometimes he surprises people with his characterization of himself as "America's first Pacific president," as he did in Tokyo last week.
Obama's unprecedented use of "unprecedented" will likely continue in his second year in office, when the administration is expected to tackle the unprecedented deficit.