Presidential proclamations have been fixtures of American government since the Washington administration issued one establishing Thanksgiving in 1789, but analysts say President Obama has broken ground by using the traditionally bland, apolitical statements as public relations tools.
Mr. Obama increasingly has used presidential proclamations to tout his accomplishments, to draw attention to initiatives such as first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and to make the case for programs such as Obamacare.
Last year alone, the president praised the Affordable Care Act with at least 18 proclamations, including for National Diabetes Month, National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and World AIDS Day.
“That is a category [of proclamations] that, to me, has been very recent, where presidents have used these orders to broadcast the value” of laws or programs, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written on presidential proclamations. “This change is pretty new. You haven’t seen presidents brag a lot in the text of proclamations about what they’ve done.”
Although Obamacare has been most prominently featured in proclamations, other legislation or administration programs also have been given presidential plugs.
Late last month, Mr. Obama again declared January as National Stalking Awareness Month and used a proclamation to highlight the fact that he signed into law the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.
Earlier in December, he celebrated the nation’s aviation pioneers on Wright Brothers Day and used the occasion to tout his administration’s efforts to improve science and engineering education efforts, including the Race to the Top initiative.
In August, Mr. Obama issued a proclamation recognizing September as National Wilderness Month and used the order to note that he had established five national monuments and, in his first year in office, designated more than 2 million acres of wilderness.
“This is something I’ve noticed primarily with President Obama,” Mr. Rottinghaus said of the trend.
Beyond the routine
Although the White House has injected pointed politics into the proclamations on multiple occasions, the vast majority of Mr. Obama’s proclamations remain routine. Like presidents before him, Mr. Obama normally uses proclamations to mark national holidays or other annual recognitions such as National Mentoring Month.
The first proclamation in American history was used for such a purpose. On Oct. 3, 1789, President Washington marked the first Day of National Thanksgiving. The nation’s first president, in the course of his two terms, issued more than a dozen other proclamations, including one establishing the District of Columbia.
Presidents of both parties have used proclamations to conduct more substantive business.
In 2005, President George W. Bush used a proclamation to suspend certain prevailing-wage requirements in order to expedite federal aid to areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Obama used proclamations to halt deportations of some illegal immigrants. He also used them to pay tribute to former presidents or lawmakers who passed away, and issued one to honor victims of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Which observances a president chooses to mark and what groups he chooses to honor, while not carrying much legal weight, still are important and can bring into focus a commander in chief’s beliefs, said William Howell, a politics professor at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on presidential power.
“The vast majority of proclamations are largely symbolic in nature. They don’t have clear policy content, but that isn’t to say that they lack political relevance,” Mr. Howell said. “They matter a good deal. It isn’t just puffery. There are stakes involved in this, and not just for the president himself.”
Indeed, interest groups and those devoted to specific causes see great value in proclamations, mainly because such orders make crystal clear — to supporters, opponents and potential donors — that they have an ally in the White House.
Sometimes, the decision to issue a proclamation — or not to issue one — can carry its own pointed political message.
Following the example set by President Clinton, President Obama regularly has marked LGBT Pride Month through presidential proclamations. Mr. Bush did not. In fact, he went in the opposite direction.
In October 2003, he marked Marriage Protection Week and declared in a proclamation that “marriage is a union between a man and a woman.”
When used in such a manner, proclamations help administrations target subsets of the American population and send specific messages, Mr. Rottinghaus said.
“It’s one more kind of micro-targeting to reinforce the message that they’ve done something for these groups,” he said.