A Rose Garden campaign is when an incumbent president takes advantage of the power and prestige of his office to help him run for re-election.
The phrase originally referred to a president staying on the grounds of the White House to campaign as opposed to traveling throughout the country. However, it’s taken on a broader meaning in recent years.
The term “Rose Garden campaign” was first used by then-candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976. At the time, Carter was challenging the incumbent president Gerald Ford. Carter complained that Ford was using a “Rose Garden strategy” to get himself free publicity, staying in the public eye by signing bills and making pronouncements. Meanwhile Carter, a relatively unknown peanut farmer from Georgia, had to work much harder to get attention.
President Ford’s “Rose Garden strategy” was not literally confined to the White House Rose Garden. In October of 1976, President Ford invited Queen Elizabeth to visit him at the White House to celebrate the bicentennial for America’s declaration of independence. Inevitably, the visit garnered a lot of media attention. Ford also held a series of televised interviews with the former baseball star Joe Garagiola.
Rose Garden strategy has both a literal and a figurative meaning. On the literal level, incumbent presidents use the White House Rose Garden as a stage for signing bills and holding media events. The setting evokes presidential power and stability. It’s an iconic location, and being photographed there sends a clear message to the public.
On a metaphorical level, a Rose Garden strategy refers to any time the incumbent president distributes political favors or largesse as part of his re-election strategy. This can mean offering economic packages to certain key states. It can also mean making key announcements about military victories, or about trade, or anything which impacts voters. Ahead of the 1936 election, for example, Franklin Roosevelt famously pushed for more economic support for workers and farmers, telling his aides that he wanted cotton prices to go up and that he didn’t want workers to be laid off.
In the first half of 2019, the New York Times reported that President Trump had held at least 11 events in the Rose Garden – more than twice the number of such events that he held in 2017. The Times concluded that Trump wanted to use his Rose Garden appearances to bolster his public image as part of his re-election campaign.
“He’s an indoor creature, but he wants to be seen outdoors,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, told the Times. “He likes the Oval Office because he could do the big signature and show power. But after a while, it becomes an image of a guy who is locked in a room. This is a deeply image-driven president. In the Rose Garden, he’s able to project that he’s outside and enjoying the compound.”
Also in 2019, The New Republic accused presidential hopeful Joe Biden of employing a “wilted Rose Garden” strategy. The publication argued that Biden, who served as Barack Obama’s vice president, was basing his campaign around his vice presidential past. The strategy, New Republic argued, was one born out of weakness, rather than strength. Its goal was to bypass Biden’s problematic voting record in the Senate and to keep voters focused on his two terms serving under a popular president.