An Extremely Brief History of Presidents as Salesmen

October 22nd, 2013

Watching President Obama give his sales pitch for ObamaCare yesterday in the Rose Garden was quite interesting.  How often in the history of this country have you heard a president announce an 800 number for people to purchase a product?

The answer is easy.

Never . . . until yesterday.

That’s not to say presidents are never called upon to sell the public on various things.  For instance, in order to get elected, they first need to sell themselves to the American people.  This isn’t often easy to do.  In fact, in some instances, it probably would have been easier to hawk health insurance policies than to sell certain candidacies (e.g., Jimmy Carter comes to mind).

Besides getting the public sold on the idea of electing them in the first place, the only other time presidents act like salesmen is in getting the public to buy into a particular policy or going to war.

Still, none of them have resorted to the sort of infomercial moment President Obama reduced himself to yesterday.

Imagine, though, if they had.

When South Carolina seceded from the Union and Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln had no choice than to respond with force.  Although many men eagerly signed up to support the Union, eventually conscription became necessary.  This wasn’t particularly popular and didn’t always work well (e.g., many rich men paid poorer men to take their places on the front lines including Theodore Roosevelt’s own father).

Can you imagine Lincoln standing in front of the Executive Mansion (a.k.a. White House) with a group of happy Union soldiers smiling behind him while Lincoln extolled the virtues of signing up?

To appeal to the audience he’d naturally throw in a few personal stories like that of Private John Smith, standing behind him to his left, who joined the Union Army after years of utter boredom working in the Patent Office.  Now, Lincoln would tell the audience, Private Smith feels challenged in his work (e.g., dodging cannonballs) and broadening his horizons by traveling to places like Virginia, Georgia, and Mississippi.

While Lincoln couldn’t announce a telephone number, he could direct eager audience members on how to find their local recruiting offices.

What about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the rollout for Social Security?  Granted, people were a bit skeptical about it when it first began with one Senator asking a Roosevelt Cabinet official to concede that Social Security was “a teeny weeny bit Socialism.”

Roosevelt had Fireside Chats to sell that program, and he did.  I just read the transcripts for those programs, and I must say if they sound like they read then most people probably just fell asleep listening.

Employing the sort of salesmanship President Obama exhibited yesterday, Roosevelt certainly could have jazzed them up a bit.  Maybe hiring a big band to write and play a catchy theme song would have done the trick.  After playing the song, Roosevelt could have come in for the pitch.  Certainly, it would have worked much better than boring everyone to death.

Other presidents have had to make similar sales for programs and policies.  Lyndon Johnson had to sell Medicare and Medicaid and George H. W. Bush had to convince the nation why we needed to enter the Gulf War.

Yet, none of them did it like President Obama did yesterday for ObamaCare. Announcing an 800 number with promises that “operators are standing by to take your call” definitely was different and certainly is a first.

Let’s see how many health insurance policies he was able to sell before we decide if it is a trend that should really continue.

If it is, perhaps we should relax our constitutional requirements for the election of president and consider Alex Trebek in 2016.