“Don’t read the comments underneath news stories of Obama’s trip to Arkansas. Trust me.”
Those comments on Twitter from Little Rock attorney Chris McNeal caught my attention last week in the midst of President Barack Obama’s visit to Arkansas to survey damage done by the EF-4 tornado that ravaged parts of central Arkansas on April 27. Ignoring his warning, I took a look for myself – quickly seeing just how cynical, and truly sad, many individuals in our society have become due to their inability to set aside political obsessions, even in times of crisis.
The president, who was making his first visit to Arkansas since being elected in 2008, came to tour communities in Pulaski and Faulkner counties, which suffered unfathomable losses, including 16 deaths, more than 100 injuries, and untold millions of dollars in property damage to homes and businesses. Current damage estimates include 825 homes – 337 of which were destroyed – and extreme economic devastation in the community of Vilonia, where up to 85 percent of businesses were lost.
Despite the magnitude of this terrible disaster, the president’s trip to Arkansas still drew critics – though most of them chose to hide behind the cloak of message board anonymity rather than publicly own their comments. Some claimed the president’s visit was a publicity stunt to support Sen. Mark Pryor’s re-election campaign. Others asserted that the trip wouldn’t have any benefit unless the president wore work clothes and started moving debris himself. Some focused their critiques on the costs associated with bringing Air Force One, support vehicles and staff to Arkansas, suggesting that the visit was a meaningless waste of tax dollars.
Narrow-minded thinking like this not only shows a lack of respect for the office of the presidency, but more importantly, misses the bigger picture of what the presidency represents and why it provides so much inspiration and comfort in times of tragedy and despair.
Growing Culture of Disrespect
It’s a well-established fact that President Obama is unpopular in Arkansas, and has been since he was first elected. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama only garnered 38.8 percent of the vote – losing by roughly 20 percentage points to Senator John McCain. Four years later, that gap widened as Obama mustered only 36.9 percent to Mitt Romney’s 60.5 percent. Today, Obama’s job approval numbers show that not much has changed as far as Arkansas public opinion goes.
Disapproval of the president, his decisions, or his policies does not justify disrespect toward the office itself – whether the officeholder is Barack Obama, George W. Bush or someone else. But as our culture has grown more political and more divided, outright disrespect toward the president has become more prevalent.
Take, for example, those who jeered and booed President George W. Bush – a man who had just given 8 hard years of his life diligently serving his country – as he arrived at the Inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Or the wildly inflammatory statement that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” made by rapper Kanye West on live television – during a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina, no less.
And of course no one can forget the famous “You lie!” outburst directed at President Obama by South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson at the 2009 State of the Union Address – an appalling moment of disrespect toward the president and the office of the presidency that showed equal disregard for the institution of Congress of which Wilson is a member.
It goes without saying that snarky comments on a message board forum are far less egregious than these public acts of contempt toward the president. But they are a byproduct of our increasingly partisan political environment, in which acts of disrespect have become too common and too acceptable. Sadly, by condoning attitudes and actions like these against the president, we diminish the very office that embodies the heart and soul of the American people.
The Presidency In Times of Crisis
“You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
There are certain commitments only a president can make. President Bill Clinton made this vow at the Oklahoma Bombing Memorial event in the days following the terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and injured nearly 700 others.
Six years later, on Sept. 14, 2001, President George W. Bush stood with first responders in the ashes and rubble of the Twin Towers and famously declared, “I want you all to know that America today, America today, is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn. This nation stands with the good people of New York City, and New Jersey, and Connecticut, as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.”
The tragic events in Oklahoma City and New York were times of sadness, despair, anger, frustration, and mourning. But they were also moments that called for unity – for all Americans to come together, to help each other, to clean up and to rebuild.
It didn’t matter that Clinton was battling some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency at that time, or that he’d lost the state of Oklahoma in the 1992 presidential race with only 34.02 percent of the vote. Nor did it matter that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney lost the state of New York by 25 points less than a year earlier.
In these moments, these presidents were delivering the condolences of a nation, and giving the nation’s commitment to these communities that we would be there for them, helping them respond and recover.
The Presidency Represents Us
President Obama’s visit to the tornado-ravaged communities in central Arkansas should be viewed no differently. His visit was not about his policies, his politics or his personal beliefs. He came to Arkansas to give the nation’s assurances to the people of Pulaski, Faulkner and White counties who suffered greatly that our nation is thinking about them, praying for them, and that we’re ready to come give them a hand.
The president is the preeminent symbol of our nation. His comfort is our comfort. His shoulder to cry on is our shoulder to cry on. His promise to help is our promise to help.
For many of us the world of politics is inspiring, engaging and sometimes all consuming. And in some respects it should be, as the choices we make at the ballot box shape the direction our country is headed.
But there are also times when we must put politics on pause and remember who it is that the president ultimately represents, and that’s each of us.
(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)