The Presidential Double Standard

President Obama has been attacked for and accused of a pantheon of offenses. It seems that every step he takes is an offense. But this post isn’t about bemoaning his ill-treatment. Non-stop criticism and micro-back seat driving are part of the territory when you are the leader of the free world. When Presidents meet with their successors after the election, topics like these inevitably come up. Only a president can truly understand what the next one is up against. President Bush undoubtedly reminded then President-elect Obama of these realities when they met.

What President Bush could not prepare President Obama for, was the apparent new standard for presidential behavior and actions. Make no mistake, President Obama is being asked to live up to a different set of standards in his term, both legislatively and in the operation of the Executive Branch itself. The important questions are twofold; first, is it fair to criticize the President for handling functions in the same manner as his predecessors and second, should any one of the new standards represent a new norm for presidential behavior?

The conservative mainstream media has decided to reflexively cover every blog-post and online “story” about the President as news. If it involves an inflammatory headline or lead, you can bet that Fox News (as much market share as all other cable news outlets combined) and the hosts of conservative radio (far more market share than all other talk radio combined) are going to aggressively “cover” the story. One result of this policy, is that these outlets inevitably criticize the President for actions that past Presidents considered normal. When all of these outlets run with the same basic story, the broadcast news providers jump into the coverage on the fringe. Corrections are few and far between, so we are left with a damaging double standard. Let’s look at these standards issue by issue.

  • Memorial Day at Arlington- Erik Erickson, among others, called Mr. Obama everything but a patriot when his itinerary was released. President Obama would spend the weekend at home in Chicago, and give his Memorial Day remarks at the Lincoln National Cemetery outside that city. But speaking at Arlington has never been an annual tradition before. Reagan missed the event for the G-7 economic summit, and President George H.W. Bush was busy playing golf…on Memorial Day itself. A reader commented on the RM that maybe it should be the tradition, and that is a valid and reasonable point. It is not, however, a reasonable basis for criticism. I feel that the President should be at some national cemetery, honoring our dead and their sacrifice…but that is just me.
  • Vacation Days– According to CBS correspondent Mark Knoller (via, the President has taken far fewer vacation days than Presidents Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, or G.W. Bush. He has taken more days than either President Clinton or President Carter. In fairness, Mr. Knoller has recorded that the President has played far more golf than his recent predecessors. The Wall Street Journal alluded to the fact that all those rounds haven’t helped his game any. Knoller makes the point that a President is never really on vacation, and supporters of President Bush can (correctly) point to all of the negative press their guy received and ask why Mr. Obama should be any different.
  • Recess Appointments– The Constitution grants the President the right to make appointments during Congressional recess. Despite this fact, the same conservative media outlets demanding that Mr. Obama stick to the “original intent” of the Constitution, are upset that Mr. Obama is using his Constitutionally guaranteed rights. But the double standard gets worse. The records of Mr. Obama’s four immediate predecessors: Reagan 243, G.H.W. Bush 77, Clinton 140, G.W. Bush 171. Mr. Obama is off to a similar pace as George W. Bush, despite the fact that Republican senators have delayed more of his appointments than other presidents have had to face. When it comes to these tactics, the other side (no matter who that is), never likes them. The skinny on this; Mr. Obama is using restraint in exercising his constitutional powers. If the GOP doesn’t like it, they are free to try and amend the Constitution.
  • Czars– This is an issue that quickly grew to ridiculous proportions. Glenn Beck and others complained about the positions, and used the unofficial title “czar” to label the positions as fascist, communist, or both. That Beck is ignorant enough to believe that Russia, Communist, Fascist, and dictator are synonyms is a reflection on him. But it misses the point. Every Administration since FDR has had people fitting that description, and Presidents Reagan and Nixon had some of the most powerful incarnations serving them. The cooler heads on this issue were swept away in the attack on the President; the conservative Brookings Institution, in the heat of the matter, described Van Jones as a nearly powerless adviser, but to no avail. President Obama and President Bush have similar numbers of titles that fit the description in their Administrations, a number far higher than any of their predecessors. The real question then becomes whether these positions short circuit the checks and balances in our three branch system. Senator Byrd had legitimate concerns, with regards to Senate confirmation, that ought to be addressed. For the sake of all our future presidents, regardless of party, we need to look at the confirmation process at the same time. It is difficult to imagine a dumber way to run an organization, than to fire the department heads every four years and then spend two years challenging the new CEO’s appointments.

The political landscape of our nation has changed in the last 24 months. Many media tactics that were previously frowned on have become standard operating practice. A clear victim of all of this hyperbole is democratic process. Where there are clear opportunities to improve government, or new suggestions to refine process, they are often overwhelmed in the rush to label Mr. Obama.

Barack Obama campaigned on “change you can believe in”, and his Republican opponents are trying to operate within that slogan. One goal of an advertising campaign designed to counter a leading competitor must be to mock the slogan of that competitor. And so the conservative mainstream media tries to turn every bullet point on the President’s itinerary, every nominee to a federal job, and every utterance from the Administration into “change you should be afraid of”. Politicians may change, but the tactics are time-honored. The question here is, how far must they go over to the side of willful distortion of the facts, before we the people say, enough is enough?

The Rational Middle is listening…

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