Obama’s Bow: A Lasting Image?

Peggy Noonan takes a harsh view of the way Obama’s first year has unfolded.

obama-bow-japanese-emperorIn a presidency, a picture or photograph becomes iconic only when it seems to express something people already think. When Gerald Ford was spoofed for being physically clumsy, it took off. The picture of Ford losing his footing and tumbling as he came down the steps of Air Force One became a symbol. There was a reason, and it wasn’t that he was physically clumsy. He was not only coordinated but graceful. He’d been a football star at the University of Michigan and was offered contracts by the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.

But the picture took off because it expressed the growing public view that Ford’s policies were bumbling and stumbling. The picture was iconic of a growing political perception.

The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic, and they would not be if they weren’t playing off a growing perception. If the pictures had been accompanied by headlines from Asia saying “Tough Talks Yield Big Progress” or “Obama Shows Muscle in China,” the bowing pictures might be understood this way: “He Stoops to Conquer: Canny Obama shows elaborate deference while he subtly, toughly, quietly advances his nation’s interests.”

But that’s not how the pictures were received or will be remembered.

It is true that Mr. Obama often seems not to have a firm grasp of—or respect for—protocol, of what has been done before and why, and of what divergence from the traditional might imply. And it is true that his political timing was unfortunate. When a great nation is feeling confident and strong, a surprising presidential bow might seem gracious. When it is feeling anxious, a bow will seem obsequious.

The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic not for those reasons, however, but because they express a growing political perception, and that is that there is something amateurish about this presidency, something too ad hoc and highly personalized about it, something . . . incompetent, at least in its first year.

My colleague Dave Schuler, who supported Obama’s candidacy precisely because he preferred his temperament on foreign policy matters to John McCain’s, has expressed similar concerns.  He rightly attributes the proximate cause to poor staff work rather than personal failing on the part of Obama, on the not unreasonable theory that there was no reason to expect him to have a nuanced understanding of protocol upon taking office.  (Indeed, because  presidents don’t come up through the ranks in the way of a British prime minister, much less a hereditary monarch, it’s rare that we elect someone with that type of background.) But that’s a distinction without difference from the perspective of foreign leaders and the American public alike.

On a side note, we can take some consolation in the fact that at least Obama’s suit fits.  How far has the Japanese economy fallen that their emperor has to great foreign heads of states in a borrowed suit?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    Ah, Nooners, aka, Our Lady of the Dolphins. I think a modicum of skepticism is need here, and Roy provides it:

    Noonan, not having been offered a bipartisan sinecure by the Administration despite her service, is back to reading the rightwing tea leaves and portraying them as the wisdom of the people. So, though her long years in the journalistic trenches must have shown her that some political schtick is evanescent, now that she is stuck playing the conservative on Sunday morning shows she is milking every anti-Obama talking point as if the udders were full of benedictine. You will recall she also counseled that the only thing that could save Obama from the Nobel Peace Prize was to reject it as rudely as possible; this he was disinclined to do, and now nobody gives a shit.

  2. Triumph says:

    Noonan tells us that Hussein is a bubble-headed liberal?!? Tell me something I didn’t know.

  3. “suit fits” is funny, but I think it might be a culturally different version of “fit.”

  4. Buried in comments a while back I offered a different explanation for the bow: Obama’s a dojo rat.

    Obama apparently was a taekwondo student while in the Senate. There’s even something of a conspiracy theory that the campaign scrubbed some references to same. But he accepted a taekwondo belt from the government of SK in recognition of his training. (Naturally, they promoted him several belts, the equivalent I suppose of an honorary doctorate.

    If my daughter’s taekwondo is typical they bow about every thirty seconds, deeply, from the waist. So it may be that Obama wasn’t so much dealing with an unfamiliar move as an overly familiar one.

    Of course that would screw up the loony right wing hysteria machine. So, proceed.

  5. brainy435 says:

    “rightly attributes the proximate cause to poor staff work rather than personal failing on the part of Obama,”

    For the Saudi bow, I grant that this excuse works. Doing the same damn thing months later shows the man doesn’t learn from his mistakes, which is a very poor trait for a leader.

  6. Gustopher says:

    The bow is not going to be a lasting image. There will be a new outrage in a week or two.

    Manufactured outrage is how the Republicans are keeping their base engaged, and they will need to keep coming up with fresh material between now and the 2010 elections.

    It will just fade into the background, like the images of Barack Hussein Obama not putting his hand over his heart while the Star Spangled Banner plays, or Malia Hussein Obama wearing the Peace t-shirt.

  7. Herb says:

    More “Obama can’t bow right” stuff? [Yawn]

    Not trying to tell you what to blog about, but there’s some awfully important stuff going on in the world. Terrorists are blowing up Russian trains. Dubai World is causing another global economic crisis. (Tax cuts for Dubai! Oh, wait…) The US is preparing to leave Iraq.

    But, by all means, let’s fixate on this bow stuff…

  8. Herb:

    Actually, I appreciate these periodic updates. It’s very hard for me to keep track of whether we are in the “Obama’s too arrogant,” or “Obama’s too humble,” phase.

    I’ve been wishing the Republicans would post an online calendar of phony Obama outrage. That would make it much easier.

  9. floyd says:

    Maybe he should switch it up, in the name of diversity and gender equality and “curtsy” in the presence of the next dignitary or world leader!

  10. An Interested Party says:

    Maybe he should switch it up, in the name of diversity and gender equality and “curtsy” in the presence of the next dignitary or world leader!

    Awwww, sorry, but Bush already beat him to that particular punch, with his holding hands with the Saudi King…

    As for advice for the president, perhaps he, like his illustrious predecessors, could give back rubs or throw up on someone…

  11. floyd says:

    “”Awwww, sorry””
    Never doubted it!
    So, let me get this straight, your cult of celebrity leader can’t be ridiculous because he belongs to an exclusive club which has several other ridiculous members?

  12. Our Paul says:

    When it comes to the “bow”, in less than 20 seconds Ann Telnaes brings it into perspective. Well worth a quick glance, for Ann’s pictorial assuredly is relevant, and will come to mind whenever Obama’s bow is brought forth…

    It has been a tad bit more than 24 hours of intermittent brain activity, but for the life of me I cannot figure sam’s (November 28, 2009 | 09:10 am):

    Ah, Nooners, aka, Our Lady of the Dolphins.

    As a broken down sailor stuck on the hard there is considerable dolphin lore stored between rum crystals of my brain. How this fine aquatic mammal relates to Peggy Noonan escapes me. Perhaps Sam or someone else could enlighten me?

    As for myself, she has always been the Arch Gusher, a minor character in Frederick Rolfe’s (aka Baron von Corvo) novel Hadrian VII. Fawning over George Rose, now the second British Pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, he describes the encounter with the lady as The Arch Gusher gushingly gushed.

    Noonan’s admiration and reverence for Pope John knew no boundaries, after all she wrote a book describing her spiritual love affair with him. Back in February 22, 2008, long before it even became apparent that Obama was a valid Presidential candidate, our sweet pea Op Ed pundit wrote a devastating column where she wondered whether Obama had enough love of country to be our leader. Buried in that column was this:

    Michelle Obama seems keenly aware of her struggles, of what it took to rise so high as a black woman in a white country. Fair enough. But I have wondered if it is hard for young African-Americans of her generation, having been drilled in America’s sad racial history, having been told about it every day of their lives, to fully apprehend the struggles of others. I wonder if she knows that some people look at her and think “Man, she got it all.” Intelligent, strong, tall, beautiful, Princeton, Harvard, black at a time when America was trying to make up for its sins and be helpful, and from a working-class family with two functioning parents who made sure she got to school.

    That’s the great divide in modern America, whether or not you had a functioning family, and she apparently came from the privileged part of that divide. A lot of white working-class Americans didn’t come up with those things. Some of them were raised by a TV and a microwave and love our country anyway, every day.

    Does Mrs. Obama know this? I don’t know. If she does, love and gratitude for the place that tries to give everyone an equal shot would seem to be in order.

    Just about what one would predict a Reagan operative would say. Her column about a minor event, Obama’s greeting of the Japanese Emperor, should come as no surprise.

    Pssst 1#: For my money, the roy edroso screed on Peg, through the link provided by Sam deserves a careful read…

  13. anjin-san says:

    Yep. The bow definitely hurt America far worse that Bush & Cheney letting Bin Laden and Mullah Omar get away at Tora Bora…

  14. floyd says:

    Are you just intentionally being a “useful idiot” for Tuesday’s upcoming speech, or does it come natural.
    From what I’ve seen, you’re smart enough that it has to be intentional, but maybe that’s jumping to conclusions?

  15. Franklin says:
  16. anjin-san says:

    No Floyd, just reminding you of the utter F__king failure of your crew to keep our country safe on 9.11 or to deal with the perpetrators afterwords. If name calling is the only comeback you have, well, given the miserable failure of the GOP, I guess it’s understandable.

  17. floyd says:

    The term “useful idiot” is not a derogatory implying diminished mental capacity.
    Besides,it was used in an interrogatory manner not as a declarative.
    In fact, contrary to “name calling I actually complimented you in my second sentence.
    I apologize sincerely for bruising your ego as a result of this misunderstanding.

    The point is that it seems obvious that the press release to which you refer is clearly timed to misdirect attention from the Obama administration’s anticipated ineffective action on Afghanistan, and is of dubious legitimacy.
    Axelrod is evil, but he is no fool!
    I should be perplexed by your unfounded use of the term “your crew”, but for obvious reasons I am not.
    Now, while I agree that many of the worst mistakes of former administrations easily eclipse Obama’s bow, I also aver profoundly that the same applies to the current One!

  18. anjin-san says:


    Thanks for clarafieng, we badly need a real left/right dialog and exchange of ideas. I am a bit of a hothead in political discussion, need to work on that.

    Was the timing of the report political? Probably. It is DC after all. But Bush’s failure to bring Bin Laden to justice & his administrations obsession with Iraq are things which still merit discussion.

    the Obama administration’s anticipated ineffective action on Afghanistan

    “anticipated” by whom?

  19. floyd says:

    I would say that it is “anticipated” by David Axelrod, as evidenced by the timing and content of this weekend’s release.
    I see it as an attempt to inoculate a forthcoming policy in which he has limited confidence in it’s effectiveness or it’s reception.
    Or at least use it to excuse inaction.

    That being said, I have little confidence in our ability to be more effective than the Former Soviet Union in controlling the region directly, and would not envy anyone faced with making policy on Afghanistan, past or present.

  20. the Q says:

    Hmmmm, maybe it was a sign of respect to the Japanese emperor, after all, there were recent elections there, a reluctance by the new government to be the USA’s lackey, a key new defense pact up for renewal, strategic discussion regarding Japan’s defense forces, mounting concerns over a too strong yen and huge capital imbalances (read debt) and a certain need to mend fences after the disastrous 8 years of brain dead conservative rule…and this is ALL YOU GOT…APOPLEXY OVER A FRIGGIN BOW!!!!!!

    Will someone please inform the GOPers that its almost 2010, not 1957?????

    Please grow the frig up already….We adults have been putting up with all your petulant nonsense ever since Little Ronnie Reagan.

    Maybe the liberals have caused all the problems, but after 30 years of conservative rule, they have failed to solve any of them.

    Please shut the hell up and let smart people run things for 8 years, then bitch, ok.

    Ooopps, I forgot that happened from 1992 – 2000 and all you could say was that Clinton had nothing to do with the prosperity.

    Funny how after he left, so did the prosperity (unless your rich.)