From trash-talking the local football team during a stump speech in Kansas City, to oft-publicized golf games with Washington figures, to a silky left-handed jumper that would serve him well on the blacktops of his adopted hometown, President Obama has consistently shown himself to be an avid sports fan. So it’s not entirely unexpected of him to have developed an opinion on the long-stewing controversy over the name of Washington’s professional football team, the Redskins. For years, Native American groups have considered the name insulting and pressured the team’s ownership to abandon the mascot. When asked about it during an interview with the Associated Press, Obama said that in the wake of such complaints he would “think about changing it” if he was the team owner.
There’s been a long-running broader discussion about the appropriateness of the usage of Native imagery as athletic mascots at both the collegiate and professional level. While the Redskins have consistently drawn the brunt of the controversy as a particularly offensive nickname, to the point where a growing number of sports journalists have chosen to stop using the name when writing about the team, a number of other teams, such as the Cleveland Indians, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the president’s own Chicago Blackhawks, are no stranger to such scrutiny. As one might expect with any given topic once the President of the United States chooses to weigh in, there’s been a renewed focus on the many facets of the issue.
What might be less expected is the backlash surrounding his remarks, considering their relative innocuousness. From private citizens commenting online to the Redskins’ attorney, many have expressed outrage that the President of the United States, with so many better things to worry about, would comment at all. But to those who’ve paid attention to other public outpourings of anger following previous Obama remarks on less-than-strictly political issues, this instance is simply par for the course. Much as in the past, people aren’t angry at the substance of the president’s opinions. They’re angry at the very idea of him voicing them at all.
Consider the context of the president’s remarks on the Redskins. He merely answered a throwaway question at the tail end of an interview, an interview in which he also discussed the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, foreign relations with Iran, and the ongoing government shutdown, all of which would undoubtedly be considered “better” or more appropriate issues for the president to discuss. He didn’t deliver a primetime speech on the topic from the East Room or the Oval Office, file a federal lawsuit against the Redskins organization, or announce the formation of an investigatory presidential commission during the State of the Union. There has been no indication from the White House, either prior to the interview or since, that this is an issue of any real urgency for the administration.
But the idea that President Obama has “better things to worry about” isn’t new. It’s become a recurring theme every spring, when a chorus inevitably arises to accuse him of shirking his duties when he makes his annual predictions for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Presumably, the reasoning here is that it takes more than five minutes to fill out a bracket, or that the president is physically incapable of multitasking even the most mundane of tasks. (Considering how safe his picks tend to be, one certainly hopes he’s not spending too much time with March Madness.)
As comparatively inconsequential as a football team’s name or a national basketball champion is in the grand scheme of presidential politics, Obama has faced similarly histrionic backlash on more serious issues. After the conclusion of George Zimmerman’s trial over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last summer, Obama unexpectedly spoke about the controversial case and its broader racial implications during a press briefing at the White House. He hadn’t even finished speaking before conservative pundits began to take him to task for commenting at all, with some going so far as to label him as the “Race-Baiter-in-Chief.” One would think that he had openly declared war on other races, as opposed to shedding light on a perspective and reality that most Americans will never have to face. If the reaction is any indication, it’s also a reality that many Americans would rather pretend does not exist.
President Obama’s guarded tact, which can border on outright ambiguity at times, is a characteristic that has frustrated his staunchest supporters and fiercest foes alike. In many respects, the current flap over the Redskins is reminiscent of the furor caused by his endorsement of gay marriage prior to last year’s election, a statement lauded as vociferously by some as it was decried by others. Lost in the sound and fury of the country’s reaction on either end of the spectrum was the diffidence with which the endorsement was made; Obama made no commitments to organizing a movement to legalize gay marriage on the federal level, and considered it a matter best left to the states, as it has been for years.
No matter what he says, the reaction never changes for some. Focus strictly on the parameters of the job description of president, and leave everything else alone. Set aside the fact that for some, there is no political problem for which the President or his party is not somehow to blame, and no solution he can propose, regardless of its actual efficacy, that will rectify it. The harsh truth is that until his successor is inaugurated in 2017, there will always be a group of Americans who disapprove of every action or comment made by the president, for no other reason than because he is the person making them. Until then, it behooves both the president’s supporters and those opponents whose opposition is predicated on actual policy or philosophical differences to read between the lines and tailor their responses to the message, not the messenger.
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