The term “Teflon president” describes a president who has a seemingly magical ability to avoid blame. A Teflon president is so charismatic that — like a Teflon pan — nothing unwanted can stick to him. No matter how much dirt his opponents uncover, the voters forgive him for it.
Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Democrat from Colorado, coined the term in 1983 when she took the House floor to denounce then-President Ronald Reagan. Schroeder said of Reagan, “He has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency: He sees to it that nothing sticks to him.” (Schroeder later said that the expression came to her while she was frying eggs in a Teflon, or non-stick pan.)
Reagan’s critics charged that he was bumbling and incompetent – but the public continued to love him. To this day, most people associate the term “Teflon president” with Ronald Reagan. But other presidents have been described as “Teflon” also. Pat Schroeder herself told CNN that Bill Clinton was very “Teflonish.” She mused that in fact, more and more politicians seemed to be doing everything they could to avoid responsibility:
I mean, the interesting thing about that…is my hope was that people would say, ‘That’s right. He is the captain of the ship and the captain of the ship has some responsibility.’ They didn’t say that. Instead they said, ‘How do I get one of those Teflon coats? Where do they sell them?’
Steve Kornacki notes Schroeder’s characterization “was meant to be disparaging, but in coining the term ‘Teflon president,’ Schroeder actually identified a significant phenomenon in politics — the willingness of voters to excuse in some politicians shortcomings that they wouldn’t accept in most others.”
Pundits have also accused Barack Obama of wearing a Teflon coat. Analysts pointed out that even when voters said they disagreed with President Obama’s policies, his approval ratings remained high. In 2009,for example, only 44 percent of Americans said they agreed with the way Obama was handling healthcare. But 63 percent of voters said they had a favorable view of the president.
More recently, a number of commentators have asked whether President Trump is also made of Teflon. After all, they reason, Trump has survived an impeachment hearing and a number of public scandals within his administration. In fact, Trump has been called the “luckiest guy ever to hold the office of president of the United States, because of his seemingly inexhaustible ability to dodge the slings and arrows that are thrown at him.
“Teflon” can also be used to describe any powerful person who manages to avoid blame over a long period of time. The New York mafia boss John Gotti was dubbed the Teflon Don, for example, after he managed to avoid conviction in trial after trial during the 1980s. Gotti was finally convicted in 1992 on 14 counts of conspiracy to commit murder and racketeering.
In 1986 the New York Times noted that DuPont, the manufacturers of Teflon, were angry about the way the word Teflon was being used in the press. As it turned out, DuPont didn’t care that people were describing the president as “Teflon.” The company simply wanted people to remember to put a trademark symbol next to the word. In a press release, Dupont said, ”It is not, alas, a verb or an adjective, not even when applied to the President of the United States!”