During a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said that kids have “good instincts” and added: “They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell.’” Does it matter that the President used “bullshitter” in an apparent reference to Mitt Romney? It’s just one word, after all.
I think it does matter, for two reasons. First, the presidency remains an aspirational position — although I recognize that may be an old-fashioned view. The President is the Leader of the Free World and the head of the world’s greatest democracy. We want the President, through his words and deeds, to represent the best about America. It’s what people mean when they talk about a candidate for the job appearing to be “presidential.”
Prior Presidents understood this, and paid careful attention to their public conduct and public speech. They were careful to keep their vulgarities hidden behind the walls of the Oval Office. When President Obama forsakes the high tones that traditionally accompany that office and uses crass language like “bullshitter” instead, it reflects a depressing coarsening of our culture. If even the President uses gutter language to refer to his opponent, in an on-the-record comment, what does that say about our society and American culture?
Second, the President’s comment, as well as much of his recent behavior, is fundamentally contrary to the approach and persona that attracted and inspired so many people in 2008. In that election, reporters covering an Obama speech often referred to his “soaring rhetoric” — and it was soaring. During his “hope and change” campaign, the President consciously sounded high-minded themes that were fully consistent with the aspirational aspect of the presidency, and refrained from name-calling, cheap stunts, and other tawdry political tactics.
That is what makes the “bullshitter” reference so jarring. It suggests that the Obama that so many found so appealing in 2012 is gone, if he ever existed. It’s hard to envision the 2008 Obama calling someone a “bullshitter,” or making the harsh and patronizing comments about aircraft carriers and submarines in the most recent debate, among other less than idealistic behavior the President has exhibited during this campaign. That conduct directly undercuts some of the most appealing aspects of candidate Obama in 2008, and makes people feel like they were hoodwinked when they pulled the lever for that candidate four years ago. Americans don’t like to feel like they’ve been played for fools.