From “lies” to breaking out in song to high-volume outbursts to signs with crude messages, it seems as if no U.S. President has ever been heckled, disrespectfully interrupted this much. What about President Obama elicits such verbal violence?
Consider the facts:
In 2011, Obama was at a Democratic breakfast fundraiser in San Francisco when a guest interrupted his speech and told him that she and others had written him a song and did he want to hear it. Upset about broken campaign promises, Obama’s views going more centrist and the treatment of Bradley Manning (the Army intelligence specialist who is accused of leaking classified documents to Wikileaks), the group broke into song. The lyrics said the group (who paid the $5,000 required to attend the breakfast) would support him 2012, but also took him to task: “We paid our dues, now where’s the change?”
Obama’s speech at a Bridgeport, Connecticut, rally was interrupted by activists advocating, in interrupted chants, for more global AIDS funding.
At a Los Angeles fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Obama was heckled about “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
At an AIDS event fundraiser in New York City, Obama was called out for not funding AIDS prevention programs and initiatives and for not moving quickly enough to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
At a Boston rally for then U.S. Senate candidate Martha Coakley, Obama was heckled by an anti-abortion activist.
Obama was giving the commencement address to Notre Dame graduates when abortion-rights critics interrupted his speech from several areas of the auditorium crying out “Abortion is murder!” and “Stop killing our babies!”
Obama was heckled by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) during a speech about health care. Wilson disrupted the joint session of Congress by shouting “You lie!” after Obama said that Democratic health care proposals would not cover illegal immigrants.
A 2009 AP article thoroughly assesses the history of heckling a U.S. president. Throughout history, congresspeople have heckled senators and vice versa. But there’s “little if any historical precedent for a U.S. congressman individually challenging a president during a speech to Congress—let alone—accusing him of lying . . .” That is extremely rare, and offensive, in the political arena.
In a 2005 article, Media Matters states that when the President speaks to Congress, polite protocol is supposed to be practiced.
And at a 2008 Florida town hall, African-American protesters in Florida called Obama out then asked a question about him not speaking out about how the predatory lending that caused the housing crisis and recession affected African-American and Latino communities.
Now, there’s a decidedly different picture when it comes to the Bushes and Clinton.
Former President George W. Bush was booed, hissed and shouted at during his State of the Union addresses in 2004 when he pushed for renewing the Patriot Act and in 2005 when he called for Social Security reform.
And more recently, in 2010, Former President H.W. Bush was heckled in a restaurant by a man shouting obscenities over Bush Senior’s “crimes against humanity.”
Clinton’s heckle scorecard is a bit more colorful.
According to Media Matters He was heckled at four State of the Union addresses:
• in 1993, Republicans snickered, shook their heads and made faces when Clinton talked about the deficit and about raising taxes on tobacco to pay for his health care plan
• in 1995, Republicans booed, were eerily silent, or even left during Clinton’s speech in the wake of the Republican election landslide
• in 1997, when Clinton spoke negatively about a GOP-sponsored constitutional amendment to balance the budget, many Republicans booed and hissed.
• in 1998, when Clinton talked about expanding Medicare to allow Americans as young as 55 to buy into the health system
Clinton was heckled in Oregon and in Maine in 2008 over the Iraq war. And in 2010 at Democratic fundraisers in NY and Ohio after he made critical comments about some Republicans. “Where’s Monica?” seems to be the question of choice.
But President Obama seems to have received the harshest, and the most disrespectful of heckling, by far. Especially for a sitting U.S. President.
It’s hard to tell for sure what race has to do with it. Of course, it most likely does, but short of a scientific study, we won’t get any admissions.
The good news, though, is two fold: Obama always responds in a firm, measured way, sometimes explaining, other times proceeding right ahead with his speech. Sometimes we see a flash of irritation and anger across his face. He is human, after all.
And second, the crowds. In incident after incident, President Obama’s supporters chant “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” again and again and again, drowning out the naysayers in bell tolls of we’re-not gonna-take-it resistance and hope.