Not since President George W. Bush has a FCOTUS (First Cat of the United States) roamed the White House premises. Abraham Lincoln was the first president to have cats — Tabby and Dixie, a gift from Secretary of State William Seward. Lincoln viewed the pair as more honorable dinner companions than his human predecessor, James Buchanan.
Cat parenthood has proven to be good electoral politics. Of the nine cat president incumbents who sought another term in office, seven won, giving them a higher reelection rate than the non-feline commanders-in-chief. The Bidens passed the first test by naming their cat Willow. An unrelatable name can be a president’s undoing — just ask Jimmy Carter and his daughter’s cat Misty Malarky Ying Yang. “No Malark[e]y!” as Biden would say.
But it’s who a cat is that can guide Biden. Dogs tell their humans, “I need you because I love you.” Cats say, “I love you because I need you.” It’s unconditional love from dogs. It’s very much conditional from cats. At this time of pandemic and inflation, Biden isn’t getting love because Americans don’t feel like he’s fulfilling their needs. His approval rating is only higher at this point in a first term than Donald Trump’s, the first non-pet president since Andrew Johnson.
What are those needs? Like humans, cats can be a walking contradiction. They are operationally progressive — pro-strong welfare state of free food and pets — yet symbolically conservative — anti-foreigners, territorial, against change, support the right to bear claws.
Those contradictions are enough to call them deplorables or demon cats. But Biden can’t project human or dog behaviors onto cats just like he can’t project the desires of Democratic constituencies onto the rest of the country. Cats are cats! Americans are Americans. If he doesn’t change, he’ll get a hiss, swat or lower approval ratings.
If Biden learned how to adapt to the #MeToo era, he can learn how to adapt to #MeowToo. This means learning cat-speak. It’s a subtle language. There’s no smile or nod of approval. A wagging tail is good for a dog, but bad for a cat. A cat’s ears, eyes and posture are all additional clues about whether a cat is comfortable, anxious, hurting or ready to attack. It may seem like a different world of communicating, but embracing cat-speak is the ultimate act for an empathic president. When Red and Blue America are living in increasingly separate worlds, piercing the bubbles goes a long way to communicating to everyone, not just the dog-wagging Democratic supporters.
Yet, in trying to please everyone, Biden could end up pleasing no one. That’s been abundantly clear in his futile attempts so far to wrangle the Democratic big tent to pass Build Back Better. Environmentalists are often at odds with labor unions. One Democratic fiscal hawk is concerned about deficits while another is concerned about raising taxes.
Coalition management is just as important with cats. There’s a reason “fighting like cats and dogs” and “cat and mouse chase” are common phrases. Cats see the world through the eyes of a predator and potential prey. It makes cohabitating a challenge.
But there are outlets for a relatively peaceful coexistence. A gregarious dog like Commander may not be Willow’s cup of tea. A well-placed cat tree can give her the security needed to enjoy a dog sibling from a distance. If Biden doesn’t want to receive angry emails from the Audubon Society, he will ensure Willow isn’t preying on birds and other critters around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Catios can reduce the cat-on-bird violence, as well as dedicated interactive play time with cat toys.
Compromise is key, in cat life and legislative life. There’s always the initial disappointment of not getting 100 percent, but something is better than nothing, and a win-win shifts the goalposts to declare victory. Biden can do that with Build Back Whatever.
Getting a cat is the 2022 reset Biden needs. If Biden can harness the approval of the over 45 million U.S. households with a cat, his slumping ratings will perk up like a happy cat’s tail. But he can’t take cat parenthood for granted. Waiting in the wings are some Republicats. The time is now for Biden to embrace his inner cat daddy-in-chief.
Ben Koltun is the director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, D.C. He’s also a cat parent and animal shelter volunteer. Follow him on Twitter @Ben_Koltun.