The US presidency has seen its standing fall since Obama’s inauguration. Some suspect racism, but Gillian Gallanagh argues that it’s due to the man himself
The American political tradition deems the office of the Presidency to be sacrosanct. The incumbent President acts as guardian of this hallowed office. Therefore, regardless of one’s political views, the office and its holder remain in some way sacred. An apparent corrosion of that understanding since Obama’s inauguration marks his time in power as distinct.
‘You lie’ is an accusation not to be thrown around lightly. Few of us are allowed to hurl it across the dinner table. Representative Joe Wilson displayed no knowledge of this basic decorum while bellowing at President Obama during his prime-time health care reform address to Congress and the nation.
The outburst sparked accusations (most notably from former President Jimmy Carter) that Wilson’s heckling was a racial attack against the nation’s first black President. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that she heard an echo from the age of slavery: “you lie… boy”. Hailed as a rogue in certain circles, Wilson earned $2.7 million within a fortnight. ‘You Lie’ bumper stickers, t-shirts and mugs soon appeared.
The South Carolina native was called upon to apologise by both Democrats and Republicans, including Senator John McCain. He quickly complied, claiming passion, not bigotry, got the better of him. Obama remained characteristically calm and collected and later refuted that the interruption was race based.
Reasoning aside, the incident was unprecedented. George Bush, waging war in the name of peace and using the Constitution for kindling, went uninterrupted for eight years in that chamber. Even as he lied, he was afforded the silence and respect that the Presidency warranted. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy stated, “I’ve been here for 35 years. I’ve been here for seven Presidents. I’ve never heard anything like that.”
It was not an isolated incident, merely the most high profile eruption to date.
The tactic of ‘othering’, used most recently against radical Islam, has for the first time been directed at an American President by his constituents. Barack Hussein Obama is a Socialist, a Muslim, the anti-Christ. Dangerous and different, he’s a fascist foreigner, an outsider. He is ‘the other’.
Bush was compared to Hitler; pilloried, ridiculed and dismissed only after an illegal and disastrous war and the demolition of the economy. Universal health care hardly compares. Opponents implored him to go home to Crawford; anti-Obama placards read ‘Go Back to Africa’.
This ploy was manifested in a Twitter campaign called PASS. In September, Obama gave an address to all school children encouraging them at the start of the new school year. Parentally Approved Skip School day was designed to coincide with this talk. Prominent pundits, such as neocon Glenn Beck, endorsed the campaign. This was a watershed moment. Since one should always listen to their President, the implicit meaning rears its ugly head – he is not their President.
An invariable charge of racism against all dissidents removes all options for legitimate dispute with the President. Nevertheless for some, Obama personifies the ‘browning’ of America. For many white Americans he epitomises and embodies the changing of the established social order.
Obama has brought with him a change in Presidential style. He campaigned on a platform grounded in the notion that he was just an ordinary guy who would act as the figurehead for the ‘Change’ movement. Since taking office he has appeared on Jay Leno, something no other sitting President has done. He goes on date nights with his wife.
He is a President who wasn’t afraid to stake his political capital on an Olympic bid that may not have succeeded, and ultimately didn’t. He was unassuming enough to term his questionable Nobel Peace Prize a call to action and vow to earn it retrospectively.
When Sergeant Joe Crowley exhibited no reservations in arrogantly inviting himself over to the nation’s most sacred house to sip beers, Obama simply agreed. A race row, that was sparked when the white police officer arrested a renowned African-American Professor in his home, culminated in a ‘beer summit’ on the White House lawn.
The irony is that those who wish to undermine him ultimately undermine the office they most wish to protect. Interrupting a President in Congress heckles his office, and those who have gone before him. Teaching children to dismiss the President’s words permanently damages the worth of those that will follow in his footsteps. Callously questioning the citizenship of a President provide ammunitions to those that wish to eradicate the Constitution you hold dear.
Obama’s transformations will not diminish the office; only elevate it to new opportunities. The same cannot be said for his attacker’s actions. For now, it is safe in the hands of a man more Presidential than his predecessor ever was.