What Presidential Announcements Reveal About the Candidates

The speeches present the country’s condition as a puzzle that’s missing one piece, which the candidate can supply.

Amy Klobuchar announces her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Amy Klobuchar announces her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. (Eric Miller / Reuters)

Amy Klobuchar made her presidential announcement in the accommodating weather conditions all candidates want. The cold was ringing in the audience’s ears as much as the senator’s words. The snow draped a doily of flakes on her head. She charged ahead without an umbrella: bad weather, but in sync with her message. “I don’t have a political machine. I don’t come from money. But what I do have is this: I have grit.” You can say this about yourself, but it’s better if you can show it.

The presidential announcement is a rare act of campaigning over which the candidates have near-total control. They pick the timing, venue, and message. Only the weather is left to chance, and the good candidates shape that too. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower spoke in the rain at his boyhood home of Abilene, Kansas. He joked about the rain in the English Channel, a casual way to remind anyone who needed it that he had led the successful D-Day invasion there.

A look at the announcements of the past 70 years shows that one change is obvious: Presidential hopefuls used to declare their candidacy in a single speech; now the process is drawn out with peekaboo hints, social-media announcements that lead to explorations, and talk-show teases. It’s like an Advent calendar, but no one gets a square of chocolate.

Other than the slow roll of the rollout, though, presidential announcements have followed an essential pattern. A candidate identifies the problems in America, assures the audience that they can be solved through the application of what Walter Mondale in his 1983 announcement called “some old American values that do not need any update,” and then presents the country’s condition as a puzzle that’s missing one piece, the shape of which the candidate embodies perfectly.

The announcement speeches on the Democratic side this year tell us that the candidates are spoiling for a fight. And they’re not being subtle about it. Senator Kamala Harris used the word fight or a variant nearly 20 times in her announcement speech. She promised to take back America, an implicit challenge to the incumbent who promised to deliver greatness to America. Senator Elizabeth Warren used the same word just as much when she announced her bid. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand brought the idea home: “I will fight for your kids as hard as I would fight for my own.” Combat was the theme also of Donald Trump’s announcement in 2015. Within a minute of taking the lectern, he had promised to beat China, Japan, and Mexico.

Barack Obama, by contrast, used the word fight only once in 2007, which offers some indication of how the political moment has changed. But not every 2020 candidate carries brass knuckles. Senator Cory Booker’s starting pitch had Obama-like echoes of unity: “Together, we will channel our common pain back into our common purpose.”

The presidential-announcement speech is not a substitute for policy. There will be time for plans and details on all the issues Democratic candidates care about: expanding health care, lowering drug prices, managing climate change, and rebuilding the middle class. It’s what their voters expect. But the presidential announcement sets the tone that frames the position papers. It is like an elevator pitch for the candidacy. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the youngest candidate, is presenting himself as a new-generation problem-solver. When Senator Bernie Sanders inevitably gets into the race, he’ll argue that all his life he has held the positions that Democrats are now getting excited about, which means he’s more believable.

In 1979, Ronald Reagan wanted to look like a president, so he announced his candidacy in a room that looked vaguely presidential. It had an imposing desk, a leather sofa, and a leather chair. (He could also have sold you a quality term-life-insurance policy.) As he spoke, he moved with an actor’s practiced nonchalance. At one point, he meandered over to a globe and spoke like a globalist. “It is time we stopped thinking of our nearest neighbors as foreigners,” he said of Mexico and Canada.

But Reagan was more substantive by today’s standards, focusing on inflation, tax policy, and energy policy. Eisenhower dwelled on inflation and spending too. He warned of the bloat that comes from “experts in self-perpetuation and ceaseless expansion,” a group that included military hawks he would later call the “military-industrial complex.” Evident concern about government spending in both announcements (and Bob Dole’s in ’95 and John McCain’s in 2007) reminds us that Republican candidates used to talk about shrinking government a lot. It was Ross Perot’s central concern in his announcement in 1992.

Trump did not engage with that issue in his announcement speech, and he does not engage with it as president. But he echoes one Republican candidate very clearly. In his 1991 campaign announcement, Pat Buchanan promised a “nationalist” campaign in which “we will put America first.”

The Democrats have their own relics of presidential announcements past. There was a time when Democratic candidates thought they won points for candor about national trade-offs. Adlai Stevenson promised in 1952, “Sacrifice, patience, understanding, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come. Let’s face it. Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains.” In 1974, Jimmy Carter also offered spinach: “We must even face the prospect of changing our basic ways of living.” Eight years later, Walter Mondale offered the same helping: “I call for tougher discipline … Everyone must contribute; all must sacrifice. I call for realism. There is a long haul ahead. Politicians must stop peddling quick fixes.”

More recent Democratic candidates have mostly shied away from that kind of talk because voters don’t think it sounds fun at all. Or they still promise that they will tell truths and then don’t say anything more abrasive or challenging than to list how bad the other party’s leader is.

So far in the 2020 season, no candidate has made an overtly political pitch when announcing his or her candidacy. In 1964, Barry Goldwater didn’t talk about issues, but about political positioning. In his brisk announcement, he explained why he was electable: “I decided to do this also because I have not heard from any announced Republican candidate a declaration of conscience or of political position that could possibly offer to the American people a clear choice in the next presidential election.” His candidacy was going to be, as he famously argued, “a choice, not an echo.”

For political sleight of hand, perhaps no candidate was more successful than John Kennedy. His pitch contained an argument that would help him circumvent the party’s tradition of picking veterans such as the older senators he was running against. “I believe that any Democratic aspirant to this important nomination should be willing to submit to the voters his views, record, and competence in a series of primary contests,” he said when announcing his campaign. Primaries weren’t the main way candidates were picked at the time, but Kennedy would never be the favorite of the backroom selection process. So he was arguing that the primary campaign was morally superior—because it brought candidates closer to the people—and therefore the others should join him on the field.

Often politicians focus on what they are not. In 1991, Bill Clinton pitched himself as a Democrat who could not be easily stereotyped as a typical tax-and-spend liberal. “A Clinton administration won’t spend your money on programs that don’t solve problems and a government that doesn’t work,” he said. Though Jimmy Carter was used by Republicans to create the Democratic bogeyman that Clinton was trying to wriggle out from under, Carter’s 1974 announcement was, one might say, Clintonian. It was filled with appeals for shrinking bureaucracy and streamlining government. Before Clinton was campaigning to “end welfare as we know it,” Carter was. “The word welfare no longer signifies how much we care, but often arouses feelings of contempt and even hatred,” Carter said in his announcement. “Is a simplified, fair, and compassionate welfare program beyond the capacity of our American government? I think not.”

Presidential announcements are a practical art. Good announcements help candidates set themselves apart in a crowded field. They also prepare candidates for the job they want. Candidates have to read the national mood and speak to it in the same way presidents do when they’re in office. Or at least that has traditionally been the case. In his opening bid, Trump, riding down an escalator, tried to create a new national mood, one shot through with the anxiety that the country was declining as surely as the candidate was descending. He succeeded.