11

When I was much younger, I remember the press always referred to the U.S. president using the title of the office: "President Nixon" was followed by "President Ford" then "President Carter".

Now that seems to have fallen out of favor and the common reference is: "Mr. Obama".

My question is: when and why did that change happen? Was it associated with a particular president?

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    Is this in the US only? In the UK he is certainly referred to as either the US President Obama, or far less formally as Barack Obama. I haven't seen a Mr. Obama in any media. – Rory Alsop Jul 8 '11 at 13:20
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    I was taught (UK education) that the President even retains his honorific once he has left the post, so Bill Clinton should always formally be addressed as Mr President. If this is the case, I find it strange that the media would refer to President Obama as Mr. Do you have a link to a media outlet who referred to him this way? – Andy F Jul 8 '11 at 13:26
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    One example is thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/08/… almost halfway down. I have heard it a lot on the radio. – jimreed Jul 8 '11 at 13:53
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    Is this not about protocol, etiquette, or culture, sociology, or at least, socio-linguistics? Has it in anyway to do much with the English language? Why punish an innocent victim? – Kris Mar 5 '14 at 6:19
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    I don't understand the up votes to this Q. on ELU. – Kris Mar 5 '14 at 6:20
22

Many media outlets in the USA refer to the President as "President X" on first reference and thereafter as "Mr. X".

National Public Radio has this policy:

Although many listeners find this second reference offensive, it is not a new policy. NPR has used "Mr." since the mid-1970s when President Gerald Ford was in office. The president is the only person whom NPR routinely refers to with the Mr. honorific on second reference. If NPR does a story, say on James Hamilton, an Ohio car dealer, he will be Hamilton on second reference, not Mr. Hamilton.

It appears this is the policy of the New York Times, as well: here's a September 18, 1851 New York Times article (PDF) that refers to President Fillmore as Mr. Fillmore on 2nd reference, and a July 6, 2011 New York Times article that does the same with President Obama.

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    I wonder how this worked with Taft? "Chief Justice President?" – Kit Z. Fox Jul 8 '11 at 16:33
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    The New York Times refers to everybody as "Mr. X" (or "Ms. X", "Mrs. X", etc.), with few exceptions. This is their own preferred style and not particularly representative of common usage. – Nate Eldredge Apr 17 '12 at 12:24
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    @NateEldredge except for the sports section. – phoog Apr 29 '12 at 4:54
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    @phoog: Indeed, that's one of the exceptions. Another is "fanciful" names: I think their editor's blog once mentioned that they would not refer to Meat Loaf as "Mr. Loaf". – Nate Eldredge Apr 29 '12 at 17:12
  • It may be policy and it may be the way it is, but I don't like it. I think President Bush (either one) is an arse biscuit, but I'm still going to call him President Bush and not Mr. Bush. – mikeY Aug 6 '13 at 19:05
3

The Corpus of Historical American English gives 62 hits for "Mr Roosevelt" between 1901 and 1910. A couple of those might be before he became president, and a few may concern other Roosevelts. But I am confident that the majority relate to President Roosevelt. There are 488 citations of "President Roosevelt" in the same period.

In the 1930's and 40's the corresponding figures are 7 and 5 for "Mr Roosevelt" and 1457, 1165 for "President Roosevelt".

This suggests to me that the trend you observe is actually returning to an older custom.

1

I can only confirm that this is US-specific. In France, nobody would ever say "Mr. Obama" (nor « Monsieur Obama »). Apparently, the UK calls him the same way as in France.

On a related note, while former French presidents were always called by their full name, (eg, « Jacques Chirac »), there was a change with the last President, which we call « Sarkozy », without his first name, even in the news.

  • Maybe you will refer to your president by his initials only one day. DSK? – b.roth Jul 8 '11 at 14:47
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Practice has varied greatly. Often, it's "President X" for the first mention, and "Mr. X" thereafter. Style guides sometimes disagree with each other.

It was often "General Washington" even when he was President, and afterwards - also true of Grant and Eisenhower.

It was Washington who requested "Mr. President" as the formal way of addressing him, specifically rejecting "Your Excellency" as contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. The practice continues. (the document itself is silent on forms of address)

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I believe this is also a change in US media practice in the last 20 years, though it may be a return to an older form and style. I, too, recall Richard Nixon always being President Nixon and never Mr. Nixon, for example.

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