This piece is part of a series on Obama’s legacy that The Huffington Post will be publishing over the next week. Read other pieces in the series here.
One of the lowest points of Barack Obama’s presidency came in late spring 2013, when the White House was involved in a trio of controversies that the media and partisan critics had deemed worthy of calling “scandals.”
As you may recall, the Obama White House was in the thick of the ongoing michegas over its 2012 Benghazi talking points ― hashed out in the fog of the attack and believed by many to have been massaged for the sake of ensuring that Obama would prevail in that November’s election. The second controversy was the then-unfolding story that the IRS had targeted political groups for heightened scrutiny, singling out organizations with the words “patriot” or “tea party” in their names.
And the third scandal was the one that only a few people cared about, because it happened to reporters: It had just come to light that the Department of Justice had secretly seized “two months of phone records for Associated Press reporters and editors without notifying the news organization.”
It was a pretty bad time for the president, and somewhere in Alaska, former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) added to it with a searing Facebook post. As The Huffington Post’s Paige Lavender reported:
“This scandalous hat trick is on your watch. It is not believable that you knew nothing about Obama administration actions in dealing with these scandals,” Palin wrote.
Palin said Obama’s “team is out of control,” specifically targeting Attorney General Eric Holder and calling for his resignation.
Palin didn’t stop at the latest scandals to rock the Obama Administration. She also slammed Obama for not holding his own umbrella.
Umbrellas? Oh, Sarah, that vault looked so good in the air but then you botched the landing.
But this was typical. During the Obama years, it definitely has been possible to view some of the White House’s decisions as “scandalous.” At the risk of having many Very Serious Beltway People come at me with their “Well, actually, this is just an example of a difficult policy choice, Jason,” I’ll say that for my money, the whole drone “kill list” thing and the administration’s failure to properly secure the financial futures of distressed post-crash homeowners actually do rise to the “scandal” level.
But for many others, Obama’s use of a teleprompter qualified.
Who knew that things as petty as a teleprompter or an umbrella could stoke such outrage? Who knew that partisan antagonists could be so creative?
In that way, the Obama era was truly unique. The idiots who peddled all of the dumb, perplexing and made-up controversies that competed for everybody’s attention actually used real industry and innovation. It was a breathless time where clothing and condiments and the particularities of various office supplies could inspire endless fist-shaking and sputtering and hot-takes galore. What if all of this energy and effort had been put to some productive purpose?
Alas, Obama’s hip-hop barbecue maybe didn’t create any jobs, but so many stupid things kept the media in business all the same. Here are some of the greatest hits.
February 2008: Michelle Obama is proud of us, so let’s stone her in the town square. A stray remark at a campaign rally ― “People in this country are ready for change and hungry for a different kind of politics and … for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback” ― got Michelle Obama in dutch, because wasn’t America swell before hope made a comeback? Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his wife were quick to counter that they’d always been proud of their country, presumably including that time their country did this to them. Can you imagine how exhausting it is to always be proud of something? I’d be much prouder of America if it didn’t need my validation all the damn time.
June 2008: Black couple did alarming thing with their hands. Ha, you guys, let’s remember Fox News idiot E.D. Hill and her stricken reaction at the sight of Barack and Michelle dapping each other up. “A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently.” It was a good reminder that stupidity often requires intense mental exertion.
March 2009: Michelle Obama has arms. They appeared in a photograph. This was bad for some reason.
April 2009: Obama has a run-in with the greeting police. Being polite and culturally aware doesn’t often work out for presidents, as Obama found out after he got caught bowing his head in greetings with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. The State Department’s protocols do mandate a “no bowing” policy! But it would seem that the importance of these protocols lies in preventing a partisan Rorschach test from exploding on the internet. It’s too bad that the energy detractors exerted over this wasn’t matched when it came time to question the U.S. role in Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen!
April 2009: God save the queen (from Michelle Obama). The first lady got herself into a real spot when she “briefly put her hand on the back of Queen Elizabeth II” at a reception. The British press reacted with an aghast exhalation, citing royal etiquette. (Stateside, we mostly remembered that Americans are no longer subjects of the British monarch.)
May 2009: Time for a condiment inquisition! So, the president, like all right-thinking people, loves a good burger. He also eschews ketchup, which is correct, because ketchup is garbage. But the fact that he likes to use Dijon-style mustard sent Fox News banshee Sean Hannity into a spasm of false class consciousness and complaint. “Hope you liked your fancy burger,” Hannity mewled, while playing his audience old Grey Poupon commercials. Hey, Sean, you understand that Grey Poupon is really cheap and all that other stuff is just effective marketing, right?
July 2009: Panic at the G-8 Summit! So I’ve got to admit, at first blush, this looked pretty bad ― a chance photograph of Obama and his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, looked like Obama had paused to take a lingering look at a 17-year-old Brazilian woman’s backside while at the G-8 conference. In an amazing feat of journalism, however, reporters revealed that the original photo had a little bit of the old trompe l’oeil, and Obama was absolved of wrongdoing. That used to be the way the news worked, anyway.
July 2009: Obama said a true thing about a stupid incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If the police ever arrest me for breaking into my own home, I’d say that those cops “acted stupidly” because that would quite literally be the truth. I’d say that if it happened to you, too. But when Obama said the same thing after Cambridge police arrested Harvard professor Skip Gates for allegedly breaking into his own home, everything went sideways for the president. Naturally, the fact that the topics of race and police resonated throughout made it more than possible for this matter to get overly politicized. It certainly demonstrated that there were massive (and unnecessary) political constraints on Obama in any discussion about race ― and in retrospect, this is a real pity. Also bad: This was the event that gave the world “beer summits.”
January 2010: People have opinions about desks! A 2010 photograph of Obama talking to a room full of advisers with his feet propped on the Resolute Desk would make the complaint rounds for years to come, so much so that three years after the fact, The Washington Times somehow reported that the image was sending “shockwaves around the world,” which, LOL. Naturally, the outrage mainly stemmed from the fact that Obama wasn’t propping up his feet while simultaneously being Caucasian.
July 2010: The curious matter of the “black power” ice cream. I’m pretty certain this scandal was entirely confined to the state of Maine, but the story here is that there is an ice cream joint in Bar Harbor with a logo that looks like “an upright black fist clenching a spoon,” and it never really mattered to anyone until the Obamas stopped in for some cones one summer. That’s when “several right-leaning bloggers have suggested that the decision by Obama, the nation’s first black president, to patronize a shop with what one site called ‘such a politically-sensitive logo’ has hidden, intentional meaning.” And that’s how the Dunning-Kruger effect works!
May 2011: Common did some black stuff at the White House. Michelle Obama celebrated some American poets at the White House, among them Chicago rapper and actor Common. It takes real effort to mine Common’s work for anything even remotely “gangsta” (Common’s best-known song is a repudiation of hip-hop’s excesses), but The Daily Caller put in some time and surfaced a poem “written from the perspective of inner city black youths who feel that the police don’t protect them.” Soon, Fox News was following suit, referring to Common as a “vile rapper.” If you’re wondering if that was an abrupt change of heart on Common’s merits by Fox News, give yourself a prize.
September 2011: Never forget that time Obama used a binder clip. This may have been the most amazing scandal of the Obama presidency. At a Rose Garden news conference urging Congress to pass the American Jobs Act, Obama brandished a copy of the bill, and the New York Post somehow fixated … on this:
President Obama’s plan to reverse the nation’s staggering jobless rate is held together with a paper clip!
“Here it is,” Obama said, waving a copy of his jobs plan during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden yesterday, an enormous paper clip binding the pages together.
That’s right, a whole crazy thing about how a stack of paper was held together by a binder clip. The Post called it “chintzy,” and Steve Doocy of “Fox & Friends” deployed similar language. Such elitism! Everyone knows that the noble binder clip is the hardy working-class paper fastener. That used to mean something.
Throughout 2012: A crazy row over a 2009 Oval Office decor decision consumes those with nothing better to talk about. It began with a Winston Churchill bust being removed from its Oval Office perch in favor of a Martin Luther King Jr. bust shortly after Obama took office. This outraged people who just learned of the move and combined a congenital need to be outraged with the failure to achieve the formal operational stage of cognitive development. The ensuing mystery and its attendant confusion was compounded by the fact that there are Churchill busts all over the White House. Finally it was explained, probably to no one’s satisfaction. I don’t know how I’ll explain to future generations how so many people became obsessed with a bust of Churchill. With any luck, there won’t be any “future generations.”
May 2012: The political press learns something about memoirs. Oh, man, and then there was the time that a bunch of political reporters got a bit snooty about the fact that the “New York girlfriend” in Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father, was never disclosed to be a “composite character” made up of many different people in the book itself. Except, guess what? This was, in fact, disclosed in all editions of the book. Really, political reporters should probably talk to the people who publish memoirs because then they’d learn that composite characters are a frequently used device that allows memoirists to keep their books from being tens of thousands of pages long, but I guess that would be too much effort.
August 2013: The Obama’s don’t have any white dogs. Ha, well, OK.
February 2014: Were Bey and Bam doing it? No, Obama and Beyonce were not having an affair, despite the momentarily confident assertion from French photographer Pascal Rostain that The Washington Post was planning on reporting the blockbuster account. Alas, such a report did not come to pass. Still, it was a fun one for the ‘shippers.
August 2014: Hold up, is everyone really freaking out about a tan suit? Obama famously told author Michael Lewis that in an effort to “pare down decisions,” he restricted himself to wearing only gray or blue suits while in office. It’s no wonder: The one time he opted for something different ― a tan suit ― the world nearly exploded. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) actually got mad about this. It’s like we want the world to think we are a nation of garbage people.
September 2014: The coffee cup salute. Very few people noticed or cared about this time Obama hopped off Marine One holding a cup of coffee in his hand, causing him to bungle the traditional salute to the Marines at the end of the steps. But apparently numerous people exist who meticulously watch for such breaches of protocol and start shrieking about it on social media whenever they catch one. It’s a good way to serve your country without putting anything personal at risk, I guess.
May 2016: The house Obama will live in after he leaves office is near other things. Specifically, The Daily Caller objects to the fact that the president’s Kalorama home will be near the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. Just wait till they find out that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner will be doing the same!
Finally, over the years many people have complained that Obama plays too much golf. We’re going to give his critics this one, because golf is bad.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.
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