In Handling Bullies, President and First Lady Use Decidedly Different Approaches

The Obamas don’t take bullying lightly, but the couple has markedly different ways of handling it.

The president often has been chided by supporters for not taking the fight to his opponents. To them, he seems to bend over backward to be polite, even when the attack seems to be as much a sign of disrespect for the Office of the President of the United States as it is personal –whether it is a congressman shouting “liar” during Obama’s State of the Union address or an audience member loudly disagreeing with one of his policy positions.

On the other hand, “One of the things, one of things I don’t do well is this,” Michelle Obama said when her speech at a private Democratic National Committee fundraiser was interrupted by a heckler who was calling for the president to issue an executive order protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

The first lady left the podium and approached the heckler, Ellen Sturtz, and said to the assembled, “Listen to me or you can take the mic. But I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

The crowd cheered for Obama to stay and Sturtz was asked to leave the event.

There are those who applauded the first lady for shutting down the heckler, but others say public figures need to learn how to charge it to the game and develop thicker skin.

“Heckling the first lady wasn’t fair because she isn’t responsible for policy. But the incident sent a message to those who are responsible: We are people, not pawns,” wrote LZ Granderson, who is a regular contributor to and was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

Granderson said Michelle Obama should have seen it coming and needs to know there is more where that came from.

The president, Granderson wrote, has talked about signing an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“And it’s not like signing an order will rock Washington’s world — as The Washington Post pointed out, of the ‘employees of federal contractors that are in the Fortune 1000, 92 percent are already protected by a company-wide sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy, and 58 percent are already protected by a gender identity nondiscrimination policy.’

“Still President Barack Obama made a promise: It’s not unreasonable to expect him to keep it.”

That said, there is something to be said about deciding whether one wants to create a public spectacle just to make a point, or whether there is a better way to publicly organize to force change.

That is where groups can take a page out of the civil rights playbook, or at least from an old-school political strategy.

If your goal is to force change, it takes large, persistent, visual tactics; something that news organizations and social media will cover, something that shouts decency, respect and dignity and that points out the lack of it being accorded those protesting.

To paraphrase a biblical saying, the protest of the righteous availeth much.

Being rude, going for shock value, only plays for those who agreed with one’s position in the first place. It seldom wins converts and often stiffens the spines of those offended by the behavior and who will, in turn, refuse to entertain discussion about the issue.

The first lady likely will be forgiven by her supporters for being human and those not inclined to do so probably didn’t much like her in the first place.

The president, meanwhile, has long since acknowledged that he is going to catch flak from many different directions. In the interim, he will move forward as best he can, seizing victories where they exist, compromising when needed and every now and again busting a stone cold move that lets him flex his power. As he did by appointing Susan Rice as his national security advisor, which doesn’t require congressional approval.

“The unapologetic selections reflect a conclusion in the West Wing that when it comes to choosing personnel, the president can never satisfy Republicans who will find almost anyone objectionable. But his choices also highlight the complicated second-term balancing act for a president unconstrained by reelection concerns,” according to The New York Times.

In that respect, the president may have decided to take the fight to his opponents without getting in their faces, but maybe by letting them get in their own way.

The first lady has a decidedly more direct approach.

Either way, they send a message loud and clear, and those who think to trifle with the Obamas may have another think coming.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”



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