Days after securing enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton made internet readers alternate between vapors and glee by tweeting a short response to a tweet from presumptive Republican opponent Donald Trump: "Delete your account." Matt Yglesias has an explainer about what this means.
It was funny. But was it presidential? Or is there something about using the contemporary idiom on social media to be snarky and dismissive that doesn't quite mesh with the presidential seal?
Concerns that presidents or presidential candidates are detracting from the dignity of the office are almost as old as the office itself. The dignity of the office is as important as it is fragile and elusive. This is because the power of the presidency is a tricky thing.
Even before the age of nukes and perpetual congressional paralysis and a massive federal bureaucracy, presidents wielded a tremendous amount of power to make foreign and domestic policy decisions. Presidents declared neutrality, expanded the nation's territory, and destroyed institutions. This means it was necessary and terrifying that the person in charge be one of the people, a citizen, an equal — but also extraordinary.
It's pretty rare that someone can pull that off, although by many accounts George Washington could. And so as the individuals in the office varied, norms about the office and its aspirants emerged.
One of those norms was that presidential speech and direct engagement with the public should be limited. Historians and historically minded political scientists disagree a bit about the 19th-century presidency, but there are a few things we know. First, early nominees did not attend party conventions or give acceptance speeches. FDR broke this tradition by going to Chicago in 1932 and accepting the nomination in person.
Presidential candidates did not campaign for themselves — their party surrogates did that — and once in office, they generally did not address the electorate directly (although their perspectives on issues were often represented in party newspapers). One of the articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson was "improper rhetoric" — he had taken a speaking tour to promote the candidates running against his Republican opponents in the 1866 midterms.
As the 19th century drew to a close, this began to change a bit. But one of the great orators of the time, three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, was also sometimes ridiculed by opponents as not quite dignified enough for the office.
As the 20th century wore on, presidents addressed audiences directly through the radio and then the television, and traveled to speak to crowds. Jimmy Carter revived the FDR's fireside chat idea by addressing the American public on the topic of energy — wearing a cardigan. As the presidency grew in power, the distance between the office and the people, at least superficially, shrank.
Obama's presidency has taken this to another level, making appearances alongside comedian Zach Galifianakis to promote HealthCare.gov, traveling to Marc Maron's garage to record a podcast with him, and cracking irreverent, self-deprecating jokes at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
In this context, Clinton's tweet seems like a logical extension. And the reaction to it seems of a piece with the drama of the presidency — of holding candidates and officeholders to a higher standard of dignity yet wanting them to be just like us.
Clinton's tweet was different from many of Obama's wry and irreverent communications, though: It was directed at her opponent. In this unusual political year, one of the things that Trump has done has been to attack the media and encourage violence against protesters at his rallies. (And violence has broken out by those protesters as well.)
This has led to criticisms about his approach to the First Amendment and to the roughness that accompanies political debate in a free society. Even with its understood meaning as a Twitter trope, a tweet directing the candidate to "delete your account" brings Clinton into that kind of discourse, too.
Presidents don't just have to balance extraordinary power with being ordinary citizens. They also have to balance being party politicians with representing the whole nation, making space for dissent and opposition. This is especially challenging when the two parties are polarized, agreeing on little and weighed down by mutual distrust. It makes sense for Clinton to go after her opponent, using Twitter and whatever other media are available, especially in response to statements that demean other Americans.
In other words, the main question isn't just whether making jokes on Twitter is beneath the dignity of the office. It's whether jokes that contain harmless tropes have different implications when combined with deep polarization and the power of the presidency. Employing these contradictions may be edgy, and it certainly gets attention. It's not likely that there's anything deeper going on with this tweet. It was, after all, just a joke. But maybe some presidential norms exist for a reason.