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Sheep: Lawn maintenance on the cheap during World War I.

The White House is many things: An abode, an office, an event venue.  But it’s also a good will-builder for the president—-especially in the Obama administration.

In the last ten days, we’ve learned about two instances in which Barack and Michelle Obama have used the White House to send symbolic messages to the country.  First came the White House Kitchen Garden, in which the “whole Obama family, including the president, will pull weeds.”Right. Every day, I’m sure.

On March 20, Michelle Obama and some local school children put the first shovels in the ground, thereby endorsing organic produce, healthy eating, and locavorism.

Then came the renovation news: The Obamas are paying for their own redesign, as opposed to taking the usual $100,000 in public funding. How could they go wrong with this move? Or as historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony commented in the Post, “This is so in touch with what is going on now…It is politically astute in terms of symbolism. It is also really thoughtful when people are losing their actual houses.”

Of course, the Obamas aren’t the only first couple to use the White House to promote certain attitudes. They just might be the savviest. I called up John Riley, a historian with the White House Historical Association, to ask about past examples of symbolism in the White House.

Turns out Jimmy Carter installed solar panels in the White House during the 1970s energy crisis “to signal to the American public what [the first couple] were trying to do to save energy,” says Riley.

Woodrow Wilson also decided to cut back on White House maintenance costs during World War I by bringing in sheep to nibble away at the lawn. When the sheep were sheered, their wool was donated to the Red Cross. The first couple also observed the rationing program with “wheatless Mondays” and “meatless Tuesdays.”

Then, there’s Bill Clinton, who installed a jogging track on the South Lawn. That move’s questionable. Sure, it sends a symbolic message promoting exercise and good health…but Clinton also probably just wanted a place to run without stalling traffic.

Image courtesy of the White House Historical Association.