Every day is casual Friday at the White House

Rory Cooper Comm. Director, The Heritage Foundation
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Shortly after the president’s inauguration last year, a short-lived controversy ensued over whether the Obama White House had done away with the Oval Office dress code enforced under the Bush administration. This was in response to photographs of not just the president, but many of his advisers, casually meeting in the Oval sans jackets. The controversy quickly died because photographs surfaced online of many past presidents not wearing a jacket in the Oval Office, including President George W. Bush who reportedly enforced the inherited ‘jackets required’ rule.

This story wasn’t so much about a jacket, but about an attitude. Did the newly elected president, who promised to change Washington, want to start by dismantling the familiar traditions that had endured for centuries? Remember, President Bush was elected in 2000 partially on the message that he would restore dignity to the Oval Office. Was dignity being put back in the closet along with the jackets? But alas, the story died amidst a trillion-dollar spending bill and the health care debacle. However, today, new firsthand evidence is being revealed that demonstrates that every day at the Obama White House is “casual Friday.”

This week, two news reports from The New York Times and The Daily Caller had interesting nuggets if you were reading carefully. First was the Sunday A1 profile of Obama Senior Advisor David Axelrod, conducted by Mark Liebovich in The New York Times.

In the profile, Axelrod tried to dispel the universally accepted truth in Washington that the Obama White House is bad at communicating its message. Of course, the chief messenger himself, Axelrod, couldn’t make it through the entire interview without giving us language we normally associate with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel saying he didn’t “give a flying [expletive] what the peanut gallery thinks.” The rest of the piece had a defensive Axelrod claiming not to be a sycophant and his friends worrying for his health.

But then, as almost an aside, comes this tidbit: “A few minutes later, Mr. Obama walked in unannounced, scattering two aides like startled pigeons. ‘Hey,’ Mr. Axelrod said by way of greeting (no ‘sir’ or ‘Mr. President.’)”

Hey. Some may congratulate the president on his ability to not have an ego and to relate at a more direct level with his staff. Those people would be wrong. This casual informality is exactly the stuff dreamt up by egos. The presidency is larger than any one person, and any one person should not diminish its traditions and grandeur simply because he wants to allow a personal point of privilege.

Monday, in a piece by Jon Ward in The Daily Caller, another top adviser to President Obama, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, defended the Obama administration from yet more criticism that they were poor communicators. Gibbs went a step further and diminishes the entire edifice in which they work, the White House itself.

Gibbs: “It seems like every where you look you feel like … doing an event in your grandmother’s house. Every room’s got a fireplace, some old picture on the wall, a light fixture on the wall that no one actually has in real life, and a book shelf.”

Yes, it’s true. Most people cannot relate to the fixtures in the White House, nor do they expect to. Gibbs was somewhat right. It is your grandmother’s house. And your grandfather’s, your parent’s, and your kid’s house. It is in fact, the people’s house. When they see these adornments, they feel a sense of ownership and pride, not disdain and jealousy. These guys simply don’t get it.

Old pictures on the wall are of former presidents, founding fathers and borrowed Smithsonian works of art. President Obama has the option of choosing exactly which “old pictures” he would like and where.

(In fact, the president has many prerogatives at his disposal if he would like to tinker with tradition. He could choose to have “Hail to the Chief” played when he enters the room, or only at specified times. Presidents since Washington have had their own opinions on the lavish musical prelude. President Truman made it the official tribute; George W. Bush rarely used it.)

Back to the jacket in the Oval Office. While enterprising folks were able to find a picture of President George W. Bush without his jacket in a rare casual moment, they were not able to dispel the idea that the policy in the Bush White House was ‘jacket-required’. The New York Times itself commented on the renewed policy in January 2001. Former Chief of Staff Andy Card and former Communications Director Dan Bartlett were both happy to reinforce this point in 2009. What transpired last year, was in fact a policy change in White House decorum. The new policy was ‘jacket not required.’

And now it seems the policy has changed to ‘respect not required.’ Whether you are a close friend and adviser to the president or a fierce opponent, he is the president of the United States and deserves the respect of that office, even if he chooses to not accept it.

Obama’s everyone-on-the-same-level attitude is not confined to wardrobe, salutations and décor; it is evident in President Obama’s apology-first foreign policy. By diminishing our nation to the same status as any other country in the United Nations, Obama perceives that a sense of humility will buy international favor.

The president needs to accept being called Mr. President, and so do his friends, staffers, opponents and countrymen. The president needs to accept that America is great, and so is his office. The U.S. presidency represents the greatest democracy this world has ever known, where a chief executive is accountable to the republic and to its people. President Obama should be humbled and graced by his responsibilities, and be reminded of them at every given moment.

Rory Cooper is the Director of Strategic Communications at The Heritage Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper.