Sunday, March 11, 2012


People should really start taking political advice from… Oprah?

The actress and television personality recently called for Obama’s critics to show “a certain level of respect” towards the President, noting that the office is one that should hold a sense of authority over the American people. It seems these days that political attacks have become especially combative and unnecessarily harsh—maybe the solution is just teaching people to play nice.

Jan Brewer gives President Obama a piece of her mind
at the Phoenix airport in January / AP Photo
We cannot forget the beauty of American democracy: that free speech allows us disagree openly about the policies of our president and other leaders. But regardless of whether or not you agree with Obama’s policies, it’s not appropriate to blatantly disrespect the office of the President. It’s similar to the argument that Congressmen have fewer cross-partisan friendships now than they used to; people will be more willing to compromise and work out differences if they show even a basic level of respect for one another.  

So what kind of disrespect am I describing? Let’s take Jan Brewer, governor of my home state of Arizona and harsh critic of Obama’s immigration policies. She was recently photographed on an airport runway wagging her finger at President Obama and lecturing him about his immigration policies. She even referred to the President as “thin-skinned” on Fox News and ignored the President at a recent visit to the White House.

The photo brings up an important question of respect in Washington and whether or not it has an impact on gridlock within the political process. Would our country run more smoothly if our leaders respected each other more? I’d argue that it would, and that politicians need a couple of lessons on how to separate their problems with a person’s policies from their ability to form a positive relationship with that person in the first place.

Solutions for this problem are more difficult to find and might end up have lower impacts. While you can’t pass a law restricting someone’s ability to disrespect the president, you can pass legislation or increase public pressure to encourage the fostering of relationships. One possible solution for forming more friendships among congressmen was mixed-party seating during House sessions and during the State of the Union. With the case of other national leaders though, public pressure might be what’s necessary to shift the discourse on how our national leaders should treat each other. A public campaign about leadership ethics and massive support from leaders’ constituencies would help, but it’s only a start towards more respectful and friendly political leaders.


  1. The current respect levels of Washington D.C. have been very interesting in recent years, and I think there are two distinct issues plaguing the nation. The first relates more closely with this class, and that’s the level of respect and partisanship between members of Congress. We’ve spoken in class about the reasons behind this perceived us-versus-them dynamic of recent Congressional sessions—it seems to be because of a number of different reasons. The first is the level of hyper-partisanship in D.C.. In recent years it has been more important than ever for the parties to vote with their party line, because if they didn’t, the bill would most likely fail, since parties have held razor thin majorities (or super-majorities, in 2010). This lessens the level of cooperation, and causes the members of Congress to see the other members of the party as antagonists. The second reason behind decreasing levels of respect in Congress could be because of a lack of moderate members (as discussed in class on March 15th). With less moderate members, once again, the two parties are less willing to work together to come up with solutions, instead offering radically different proposals to appease their extreme bases.
    The second respect issue that this post writes about is a little more troubling. It seems as though President Obama has suffered from a level of disrespect from both politicians and the media that prior president’s haven’t dealt with. There are multiple levels of this disrespect, ranging from Jan Brewer’s “finger-pointing” to disrespect from reporters during interviews. While it is historically normal for the media to harshly criticize a sitting president, the media typically shows Presidents more respect in person than they have with Obama.
    I agree with the poster’s theory that the lack of respect in politics today does have negative consequences for the efficacy of our government, however solutions to this problem are less clear, however it is certain that something must change.

    1. Stefani,

      Great post. You have to wonder how much of the Congressional head-butting on a personal level leads to overall dysfunction of the legislative system. I am a huge believer in the idea that increased competition leads to a better finished product, but I wonder how many of these Congressmen have competing ideologies as opposed to short tempers and unclear beliefs.

      I think your recommendation to implement mixed-party seating in order to increase general respect in Congress is praise-worthy, but I wonder if relationships fostered in this manner would be largely symbolic.

      Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke to mixed-party seating as a symbolic policy change rather than a material policy, saying, "It's a nice gesture … but let's not fool ourselves into saying we're singing Kumbaya.”

      So how can we get these men and women to start seeing eye to eye with each other on the floor of Congress? It’s tough to put my finger on it because if Congressional leaders were to speak to the need to socialize and relax with peer lawmakers outside of the Capitol, voters would fire back with the need to work more for their constituency.

  2. I'm not sure I agree with Oprah. Although a governor must obey the President on issues in which he has authority over the states, giving him a finger wagging hardly seems like a major concern. Our President may be the leader of the exectuvie branch, but the leaders of the legislative branch get no such pass. Our political system is built upon tension between the states and the federal government and upon tension in the federal government itself. At least we have overcome the days when a good caning in Congress is the answer to insults?

  3. Although I think that policies aimed at fostering cooperation are a good idea, I wonder if they actually draw more attention to the fact that politicians aren't getting along than is actually true. In other words, does a policy such as a mixed-party seating rule—which would probably receive a lot of media attention—actually leave Americans with an even more negative impression of Congressmen than they had before? There is a lot to be said about the connection between media coverage and polarization, and I would argue that, by publishing images such as the one in this post, the media significantly contributes to the impression that politicians aren't getting along. And maybe publicizing polarization-reducing efforts, like seating rules, would combat the prevalent negative media. But I think that most Americans can see right through such symbolic policies, and might end up generating an even more negative image of politicians' partisanship in response.