Although the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, there’s a gray area as to just how far the citizenry can go in criticizing the President of the United States.
For example, there seem to be no restriction on persistence. For 30 years, beginning in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, protestors held an anti-nuclear vigil in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House’s North Lawn. They didn’t get their way; authorities never told them to get out of the sightseers’ way.
As for up-close-and-personal encounters with America’s commander-in-chief, decorum takes over. During a September 2009 appearance before a joint session oft Congress, Barack Obama was interrupted by South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, who shouted, “You lie”, after the newly elected president claimed that his healthcare overhaul wouldn’t apply to illegal immigrants. Never mind the fact that Wilson may have been ahead of the curve on the president’s veracity. It didn’t stop both Democrats and Republicans from piling on him for the outburst.
Then there’s the media, where rules and standards are nebulous. And that takes us to David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who had this to say about Obama on last week’s Meet the Press:
“Basically since Yalta we’ve had an assumption that borders are basically going to be borders, and once that comes into question, if in Ukraine or Crimea or anywhere else, then all over the world all bets are off.
“And let’s face it, Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a – I’ll say it crudely – a manhood problem in the Middle East. Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad or somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair, but certainly in the Middle East there is an assumption that he’s not tough enough.”
The reaction to Brooks’ questioning of the President’s manhood? Call it the stuff of liberal phallus-y.
Salon, a left-leaning Internet publication, dismissed the criticism as “twisted” and “racist”. Politics USA (“real liberal politics”, its Web banner proclaims) trashed Brooks as a “a pasty GOP media tool” – conveniently overlooking that Brooks not only quasi-endorsed Obama in 2008, but has taken it upon himself as theTimes’ in-house Republican to pan the likes of Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan.
Here are three takeaways from this over-reaction to Brooks’ comment:
1) He’s On Target. Three days after Brooks had his say, Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank penned this column regarding Obama’s trip to the far side of the Pacific Rim. The headline: “Overseas, President Obama Projects a Whole Lot of Nothing”. The lede: “President Obama landed in Japan on Wednesday night and delivered an important message on behalf of the American people: “That’s some good sushi right there,” he said.” Milbank’s main gripe:“Nothing is wrong with an American president spreading goodwill and eating good sushi, but the photo-op nature of the trip risks contributing to a perception that Obama’s Asian policy, and his foreign policy in general, is similarly itinerant. He’s seeing the sights, getting some good pics and moving along — more tourist than architect of world affairs.” And that was written before Obama left Japan, having failed to reach a trade accord. The bottom line: Obama promised a new approach to American foreign policy, and at present it isn’t working – in Asia, in the Middle East, in Ukraine. And that makes his leadership fair game for critics.
2) Memory Lapse. There’s another way to question a politician’s manhood: call him a wimp. It’s happened twice to Republican presidential candidates in recent times – in both instances, with relatively little media regret. In October 1987, Newsweek ran this “wimp factor” cover – questioning then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s manhood (decades later, the magazine offered this atonement of sorts). In August 2012, the same publication gave the same treatment to Mitt Romney. With the exception of this column by Real Clear Politics’ Carl Cannon, few if any in the established media seemed bothered by the character smear. Even the entire Republican establishment has been called wimpy – “Morning Joe” Scarborough, the MSNBC personality and former GOP congressman from Florida, telling his party to “man up” and stand up to Sarah Palin (this was back in November 2010, before the 2012 election cycle got underway).
3) Welcome to Lame-Duck Status. Obama’s Asia mission received little build-up in the press and pro-forma coverage once he hit the road. That’s due in part to something he can’t changed: his presidency is winding down. And it’s due in part to something he’d dearly loved to change: Washington’s growing obsession with both the looming midterm election and, after that, the 2016 presidential campaign – lately, the possibility of a shootout between Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. With less than 1,000 days remaining in the Obama presidency and the President himself in no position to dictate policy, it’s a second term driven more by a political than a governing agenda. It’s a familiar tale of second-term woes, as Obama is the third consecutive president to lose at least half of Congress under his watch.
The list is long of terrible things said about American presidents, recent and past. George W. Bush was deemed a racist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Bill Clinton was accused of rape. Reagan was dismissed as stupid (and maybe senile, to boot). Our Founding Fathers had it just as rough: Thomas Jefferson supposedly was a scam artist who cheated widows out of their money, not to mention “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father"; John Adams possessed “a hideously hermaphroditical character”.
And Abraham Lincoln, the president who preserved the union? In an issue a few weeks before the 1864 election, Harper's magazine listed these abuses hurled Lincoln’s way during his re-election run: “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Fiend, Butcher”.
So to be critiqued, in a semi-apologetic way, as something of a weak figure on the world stage? There are worse things to say about this president – things probably already said in Moscow and other foreign capitals.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen