James Traficant—the former Congressman, former ex-con and former maestro of the one-minute floor speech—used to call me Mr. Chairman when we saw each other in the halls of Congress.
I was a staffer for then-Rep. Bob Michel (R-Ill.) at the time, and I used to be on the House floor a lot, helping to organize Republican members for their floor speeches. He knew that I was a staffer and it took me a while to figure out why he called me Chairman.
I found out that he called just about everybody Chairman, because as he put it, there were a lot of chairmen around, and it was better to be safe than sorry.
Congressional titles are interesting things. When you work in the legislative branch, you can get caught up in them if you aren’t careful.
But calling a chairman “Mr. Chairman” or “Madam Chairman” shows respect, not only for the person, but more importantly, for the office.
When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, his staff and most of the members continued to call him Newt. I thought that was a mistake, at the time. I always called him Mr. Speaker, because I felt that Republicans worked long and hard to get someone in that office, and by gosh, we should respect the office while we had it.
When my friend Denny Hastert became Speaker, I rarely, if ever, called him Denny again. I always called him Mr. Speaker, and still do, now that he is retired from that office. I think it shows respect for the sacrifices that come from being a public servant and occupying one of the most important offices in the land.
But Thursday, at the so-called summit, members of Congress all accorded President Obama the respect he deserves as the occupant of the most exalted office in America. They didn’t call him Barack or Barry or BHO. They called him Mr. President.
He didn’t return the favor. He was awfully familiar with his colleagues from a different branch. He called the Speaker “Nancy,” the Senate Majority Leader “Harry,” the Senate Republican Leader “Mitch,” and his vanquished opponent “John.”
When “Mitch” complained that the president and the Democrats had hogged most of the time, Mr. Obama said, with studied insouciance, “That’s right Mitch, I am the president,” implying that because he is the president that he can do whatever he wants to do.
That statement should set off alarm bells among the president’s advisers. Actually, presidents can’t do whatever they want to do. Richard Nixon proved that point.
In fact, Presidents who think they can do whatever they want to do tend to get in big, big trouble. George Bush thought he could change Social Security. He thought he had the political power to do it. He was wrong.
Lyndon Johnson thought he could pay for both guns and butter, and expanded the fight into Viet Nam. He was wrong. Franklin Roosevelt thought he could do whatever he wanted to do, and when he tried to pack the Supreme Court, he got smacked down, big time.
John Adams thought he could get away with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and found out the hard the way when he became our first one-term president. Woodrow Wilson thought he could do whatever he wanted to do, and had the Senate turn his back on the Treaty of Versailles.
The fact of the matter is that presidents can’t do whatever they want to do. And they are much better off if they treat their colleagues in the Congress with all due proper respect.
The congressional titles are there for a reason, Mr. President. You may not respect your friends in the Congress, but you will be much better off if you pretend that you do.
John Feehery is president of the Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm dedicated to helping its clients achieve their legislative and communications objectives in Washington, D.C. He is also a frequent commentator on the political landscape, widely quoted around the country and often seen on such television programs as CNN’s The Situation Room, MSNBC’s Hardball, and Bloomberg Television’s Money and Politics. He is also a contributor to The Hill’s “Pundits Blog.”