Is Barack Obama Too Manly?

Mark Liebowitz had a piece for NYT over the weekend titled “Man’s World at White House? No Harm, No Foul, Aides Say.” At first blush, it reads like some feminists are genuinely concerned about a male-dominated culture in the West Wing. After awhile, however, one begins to suspect it’s a PR exercise to make President Obama seem more manly.

Obama Golf Boys

President Obama and golf partners, including the White House assistant chef Sam Kass, right, during his vacation in August. Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Does the White House feel like a frat house?

The suspicion flared in recent weeks — and not for the first time — after President Obama was criticized by women’s advocates and liberal bloggers for hosting a high-level basketball game with no female players.

The president, after all, is an unabashed First Guy’s Guy. Since being elected, he has demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of college hoops on ESPN, indulged a craving for weekend golf, expressed a preference for adopting a “big rambunctious dog” over a “girlie dog” and hoisted beer in a peacemaking effort.

He presides over a White House rife with fist-bumping young men who call each other “dude” and testosterone-brimming personalities like Rahm Emanuel, the often-profane chief of staff; Lawrence Summers, the brash economic adviser; and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, who habitually speaks in sports metaphors.

The technical foul over the all-male game has become a nagging concern for a White House that has battled an impression dating to the presidential campaign that Mr. Obama’s closest advisers form a boys’ club and that he is too frequently in the company of only men — not just when playing sports, but also when making big decisions.

Uh huh.

“Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer. Ms. Myers said women have high expectations of the president. “Obama has a personal style that appeals to women,” she said. “He is seen as a consensus builder; he is not a towel snapper and does not tell crude jokes.”

Ooh, so he’s not only a Guy’s Guy, but he’s mature and sensitive, too? Oh, my!

Mr. Obama, in an interview with NBC on Wednesday, called the beef over basketball “bunk,” saying that the players were largely picked from a regular Congressional game and that the list of invitees was reviewed by women on his staff. “I don’t think it sends any kind of message or signal whatsoever,” said the president, who often points out that he is surrounded by strong females at home (where he is the only non-canine male). He added, in the interview, that he had hired women into “some of the most important decision-making positions in this White House.”

OK. He loses a couple of Man Points here for 1) blaming the selection of his basketball team on female staffers and 2) having female staffers pick his basketball team.

Mr. Obama is hardly the first commander in chief whose penchant for sports and other guyish stuff (comic books, “Star Trek”) has become part of his presidential persona. The first President George Bush presented himself as a horseshoe-playing, pork-rind-eating Texan. He was followed by the Big Mac-gobbling, cigar-chomping Bill Clinton and the brush-clearing, bike-busting George W. Bush. It worked to good effect, said Mark McKinnon, a media adviser and mountain bike companion of the latter Mr. Bush.

Aside from perhaps the brush-clearing, is there any reason to believe any of this is affect? There’s every reason to believe Bush 41 likes horseshoes and pork rinds and Clinton liked hamburgers and cigars. And all these men were demonstrably avid sportsmen in their day.

As to the merits of the culture clash issue, these passages put it in perspective:

In interviews, five women who work in the White House or advised officials there described the culture with more of a collective eye-roll than any real sense of grievance or discomfort. One junior aide, who like the other women spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about appearing publicly critical, said that the “sports-fan thing at the White House” could become “annoying” and that her relative indifference to athletics could be mildly alienating. And while this is not uncommon in any workplace, sports bonding can afford a point of entree with the boss.

[…]

Recreation is only one source of affinity within a White House culture, people there say. Obama veterans describe a camaraderie forged over a grueling campaign and a merciless nine months at the White House. It is not about gender, they say, but shared experience. “Many of us have known each other for a long time, and we have brother-and-sister kind of relationships,” said Jen Psaki, the deputy press secretary, who works in an office with seven other spokesmen under 35, all “brothers” from the campaign.

[…]

Ms. Dunn said that she recently hosted a baby shower for an administration official and that no men from the office were invited. She is comfortable with that — just as she is fine with never playing basketball with the president. “That is just part of the culture here that I am excluded from,” she said. “And I don’t care.”

Quite right. Women are in very powerful roles in this administration, as they have been in the last several administrations. That’s the direction our culture has taken over the last three decades or so. But it doesn’t mean that men and women aren’t going to still tend to have different interests.

Just once, I’d like to see Obama break out of campaign mode and give an honest answer to silly questions like this. He’s a very good basketball player, especially for a middle aged Harvard Law graduate with a busy schedule. Unless he’s going to invite elite level women’s players (i.e., people good enough for the Olympics or the WNBA) they’re not going to be very good competition. For that matter, aside from pre-pubescent children, who ever heard of co-ed basketball teams?

No worries, though, Obama invited Melody Barnes, his chief domestic policy advisor, to play golf with him Sunday.  Which, naturally, was widely reported.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DL says:

    In view of his wimpish foreign policy kiss-up to the strongmen of the world,I would ask if he’s too girlieman.

  2. An Interested Party says:

    Yes, indeed…if only he was a manly man like his illustrious predecessor…that would certainly show the world who’s the boss…

  3. Furhead says:

    cigar-chomping Bill Clinton

    With a setup like this …

  4. Anderson says:

    Most women like men.

  5. I guess it could be worse. Obama could be running around liter Pootie Poot practicing Judo, tranqing tigers while shirtless and diving to unexplored depths. The fact that even in the most Liberal, radical, leftist administration that this country has ever seen we still see that guys are to be guys and women are going to be women. Natural gender divides and norms still trump all of the lofty, idealized, world of a gender neutered society. Even leftists can’t escape nature.

  6. anjin-san says:

    In view of his wimpish foreign policy kiss-up to the strongmen of the world,I would ask if he’s too girlieman.

    “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” – Moshe Dayan

    Well, Dyan actually fought for freedom, as opposed to talking about it on a blog like your average right wing freedom fighter, so I am going to go with what he says…

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    And Moshe was successful how, anjin?

  8. floyd says:

    Si vis pacem, para bellum

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    He presides over a White House rife with fist-bumping young men who call each other “dude” and testosterone-brimming personalities like Rahm Emanuel, the often-profane chief of staff; Lawrence Summers, the brash economic adviser; and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, who habitually speaks in sports metaphors.

    Great, so during one of the worst recessions we have frat boys in charge.

    If this is a PR stunt, they need to fire the current PR team.

  10. floyd says:

    Judging Obama’s manliness is like judging his golf score against Kim Jong Il’s…..
    It depends on who’s caddy is keeping score!

  11. Is Barack Obama Too Manly?

    Mark Liebowitz had a piece for NYT over the weekend titled “Man’s World at White House? No Harm, No Foul, Aides Say.” At first blush, it reads like some feminists are genuinely concerned about a male-dominated culture in the West Wing.

    A male-dominated culture is not synonymous with being too manly. Of course,this all begs the question of what is manly, much less what is too manly.

    After awhile, however, one begins to suspect it’s a PR exercise to make President Obama seem more manly.

    I assume we’ll next see a Washington Post article asking if Barack Obama is too leftist in an effort to make him seem more left than he is. Or should that be too rightist to seem more right than he is? Or even too centrist to appear more centrist than he is?

    Real men of genius…