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What is the proper title for a former U.S. President?

According to Wikipedia , we use "Mr. President" as the title for all presidents--either current or previous. E.g., President Obama.

This is a little weird, since Obama is not president anymore.

In past years, some guidebooks on manners maintained that in the U.S., the title should be reserved for the incumbent president only, and should not be used for former presidents, holding that it was not proper to use the title as a courtesy title when addressing a former president. Despite that, all living former U.S. Presidents continue to be addressed as "Mr. President", both formally and informally, and contemporary experts on etiquette now maintain that it is entirely appropriate.

In the United States, the title "Mr. President" is used in a number of formal instances as well: for example anyone presiding over the United States Senate is addressed as "Mr. President." Other uses of the title include presidents of state and local legislatures, however only the President of the United States uses the title outside of formal sessions.

Is the title "Emeritus" appropriate? Often used for former CEO's, etc. we may say "John Smith, President Emeritus."

So, could we say: "Barack Obama, President Emeritus"

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    You appear to have answered your own question. Wikipedia gives the customary usage, and whether you find it weird or not is irrelevant. You can call Mr Obama "President Emeritus" if you like (though the usage of "emeritus" is not the normal or correct one), but other people are going to call him "Mr President", and will do the same for Donald Trump when he leaves office. (I also strongly recommend spelling his name right if you want to be respectful.) – DJClayworth Nov 8 at 16:39
  • We do the same for Governor, Doctor, Judge, Mayor, etc. – dandavis Nov 8 at 18:24
  • @DJClayworth " (I also strongly recommend spelling his name right if you want to be respectful.)" --Strongly agree. Fixed. – kmiklas Nov 8 at 20:36
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    Of course if the former President is in jail I think he would probably be assigned a number. – WS2 Nov 9 at 8:17
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You have answered your own question. The answer you found is correct, that the proper way to address a former President is "Mr. President" or "President Barack Obama".

It may only seem weird because there have been a number of cases during the past two decades where people have used other forms of address to refer to current or former Presidents for unusual reasons:

  • We've had two Presidents with the surname "Bush" very recently, so if you say "President Bush" it's not clear which one you are talking about (though George W. Bush was also very passive aggressively referred to as "Mr. Bush" during his first term because of bitterness over the closeness of his electoral victory).
  • Similarly, both Bill and Hillary Clinton are highly prominent politicians who ran for President, even though President Clinton was the only one who actually was President. Yet there are still cases where people want to be very clear about which Clinton they are talking about.
  • Donald Trump has an unusual fascination with being addressed as "Mr. Trump" all the time which predates him being in office that he seems to continue to like, even though this doesn't go along with the normal etiquette of the Presidency.

The rule isn't weird, the times are.

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    The rule is a little bit weird, in the sense that the title relates to an office to which individuals are temporarily elected, and they retain none of the powers or responsibilities of office after leaving. It's still the custom to refer to former presidents as "President", but the entire point of the U.S. system of government (wrt the Presidency) is that people don't become and then indefinitely remain the President. – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Nov 8 at 19:22
  • @Joe "You have answered your own question. The answer you found is correct, that the proper way to address a former President is 'Mr. President' or 'President Barack Obama'" --I don't like this answer. – kmiklas Nov 8 at 20:38
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    @kmiklas Umm... okay? Do you say that because you think it is factually incorrect? – Joe Nov 8 at 21:27
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    @Upper_Case There is nothing weird about that, because the same rule applies to other elected officials of lesser stature and even officers of the military even when they no longer have their special powers either. – Joe Nov 8 at 21:31
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    @kmiklas Because titles in politics do not work the same way as titles in academia. – Joe Nov 9 at 14:14
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The practice of calling a person, in public service, by the highest title they had ever held is not new. It goes as far back as the beginning of the country. At least, that is what the movies would have us believe.

Here's a quote from the movie Amistad (as it is presented on IMDB):

Theodore Joadson: I know you, Mr. President. I know you and your Presidency as well as any man - and your father's. You were a child at his side when he helped invent America. And you, in turn, have devoted your life to refining that noble invention. There remains one task undone. One vital task the Founding Father's left to their sons...

Joadson was addressing John Quincy Adams there. At that time Adams was already a former President. This was despite the fact that John Quincy Adams occupied a different elected position during the events of the movie. Adams was an elected member of the House of Representatives.

Assuming that this movie (based on a real-life case tried by John Quincy Adams) had been well-researched, you can see how old this tradition is.

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Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush, or Mr. Washington are all entirely appropriate.

This question goes back as far as the first president of the United States and the precedent he wished to set for the nomenclature of the office. To distinguish itself from monarchy and dictatorships elsewhere, Washington and Congress settled on the term "Mr. President" for the President of the United States. Emeritus presidents may be called by whatever respectable and applicable title one prefers. Washington's precedent suggests that simply "Mr." may be the most acceptable form of address for a former president of the first nation in modern times to accept government by the people, for the people, without nobility, monarchy or oligarchy. The existence of the double title "Mr. President" suggests that it may have arisen as a mere courtesy to those wishing to address the president unambiguously and desiring to have some semblance of a formal title, nonetheless it is relegated to a secondary role to the ordinary "Mr.", signifying a common man.

https://books.google.com/books?id=LAoOAAAAIAAJ&vq=Mr.%20President&pg=PA155#v=snippet&q=Mr.%20President&f=false

  • In those days, "president" would have been thought of less as a title than as the name of an office, so it's not really a double title. Similarly Mr. Speaker, Mr. Justice, and so on. Why Mr. Senator seems never to have been in favor, I do not know. – phoog Nov 9 at 0:43
  • Not Mr. Washington, General, if you please – K Dog Nov 9 at 18:14
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Sure, if you are working in government, want to show deference to the office or office-holder, or cretainly if you are part of the active military, Joe's answer and the Wiki page hold. But is that proper? America also has a fine and noble tradition of booing, heckling and generally reminding whomever the jackwagon is in office that they actually works for us. So feel free to call him or her whatever you like. It's just as proper and more American.

The better view may be that America is a country built on dissent, which protects protests and that the act of booing is an exercise in free democracy. And even and especially as the current administration veers more towards a theocracy, we should perhaps cordon off the machinations of the government and of the pieties of faith. Our law is not Torah, but the constitution and, as mentioned above, it is advisable to correct someone who takes to “scorning the words.”

Is It Kosher to Boo the President?

  • is that last paragraph a quote? if so, by whom? – dandavis Nov 8 at 20:56
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The term "title" is a bit misleading, as it bundles together some subtly different ideas.

"Mr. President" is, more specifically, a style or honorific. This is, among other things, how you address an important person when you are talking to that person directly. A judge is "your Honor", a king or queen is "your Majesty", the Pope is "your Holiness", etc.

I agree that it seems odd that the style "Mr. President" sticks with a person even when they aren't the president anymore. But styles are rooted more in custom* and tradition** than in logic or even formal rules, and this is the custom for many styles. For example, a retired general will still be addressed as General [X]. In any case, no one is forcing us to call the ex-presidents that. There's no law about it.

Turning to your proposed phrase "President Emeritus": it is a title, and its meaning is clear, but "[X] Emeritus" is rarely if ever used to address someone. Take "Professor Emeritus", for example. You wouldn't shake someone's hand and say, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Professor Emeritus Barnes." That just sounds weird. You would probably go with "Professor Barnes" in that situation, even if they technically aren't teaching anymore.

*custom: doing what everybody else does, whether you understand the reasons for it or not

**tradition: doing what everybody older than you does, whether you understand the reasons for it or not

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