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The Perception of Obama’s Bow, and Why it Matters

I’m fascinated with how perceptions impact reality.  That’s why Peggy Noonan’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on how President Obama bowing to other world leaders has been perceived by the American public.  It’s worth reading because from her perspective, iconic images like Gerald Ford tripping on a step have meaning based on where the country is right now.  Here’s the essence of the article, and I’d love your opinion on her take:

“In 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.”
Although the President’s team are probably thinking they have 3 years to change these perceptions, Peggy Noonan thinks different:  “But they should worry. You can get tagged, typed and pegged your first year. Gerald Ford did, and Ronald Reagan too, more happily. The first year is when indelible impressions are made and iconic photos emerge.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re a politician, business leader, or pastor, perceptions matter and they last.

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  1. Well thanks Phil, I learned a new word: obsequious. One entry in the thesaurus was boot-licking!  It got more vulgar from there.  

    As far as the point that perceptions matter, they do to other people even if those of whom the perceptions are about suggest they don’t.  I find it interesting that though people may say they “don’t care what other people think”, they are the first to object to the vocalization of such perceptions.  Regarding the health care reform movement going on, I hear much about quelling the “misinformation” that is being spread by opponents to this policy.  (Is it ok to spread misinformation to garner support of Health Care Reform?)  What I did find interesting and admirable about our previous President, George W. Bush, was that he seem to show the negative perceptions others had of him did matter to him, but he didn’t do much to quell them.  What is the point to try to set the record straight to those who didn’t need a truthful correction because their minds were already made up: BUSH IS BAD, BUSH IS DUMB, BUSH HAS ONLY FAILED POLICIES!?  He sought, so he says, to govern out of principles rather than from popularity.  After 9/11 he had popularity.  At the end of his presidency, he did not.  I’m glad he didn’t go on a constant tirade of the unfairness of the mainstream media.  Some may see that as a concession of guilt, but I saw it as a sign of character.

    Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips. Proverbs 27:2

    Always remember … You Are loved!


  2. Although the President’s team are probably thinking they have 3 years to change these perceptions…

    To take Peggy’s point a step further, the Obama Presidency window has nearly passed. The State of The Union marks the end of his first term. Midterm Campaigning begins immediately and will drive all policy in 2010 (if he hopes to hold any ground in Congress) and then he’ll go about the business of getting himself re-elected. 

    First impressions are always critical, but when your window of “HOPE” & “CHANGE” is so truncated, you can’t afford these type of missteps.

  3. Whoa. This is totally heavy stuff. 

    I agree with Peggy on perception, but I’m not sure we can analyze or interpret his political gestures quite yet. What I will say is he is intentionally gaining political favor by these gestures… I’m just not sure it’s to our benefit. 

  4. Not to mention the (highly unpatriotic, IMHO) photoshopped images of Obama as witch doctor, as the joker, as hitler…

    Obama worked media and technology to win the Oval Office… why is he not working it to win hearts and minds?

    Or, better… why are his advisors not?

    Man, I wish I was back there and able to help…


    I made magic once.  Now, the sofa is gone.


  5. The people that care about him bowing are those who have made up their mind that it is an issue.  The rest of the planet sees it as a non-issue. But at least it gives bloggers something to write about.

  6. jstainer pretty much said what I was going to say. I’ll just put a slightly different spin on it:  The only people still talking about this are the one’s who WANT to perceive something negative about our President. Everyone else has perceived it differently and moved on. Sure, perception matters, but I don’t think Obama needs to prove anything to the Bow-perceivers (who can now join the Birthers and the Deathers in the Hall of Shame). Sheesh.

  7. I agree with jstainer and Steve K. that people perceive what they want to, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was perceived.  People perceive stuff all the time, and since I’m a clumsy doofus who is always saying silly things, people often perceive the opposite of what I’m actually trying to say.  It’s really annoying, but a fact of life.

    I will say that I would not have even noticed or cared about the Obama bow if it hadn’t been pointed out.

  8. I found it interesting that Jon Stewart of the Daily Show pointed out some startling similarities between President Obama’s speech Tuesday night and a very similar speech that President Bush gave in 2007, both announcing more troops moving into respective war zones.  For President Bush, it was 30,000 troops to Iraq.  For President Obama, it’s 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.

    I honestly don’t think President Obama and his team know what kind of impression or perception they want to foster – or they’re too busy trying to play catch-up that they are unable to pull back and regroup to the concept they want to promote.

    Unfortunately for them, there really isn’t a way to take a day or two off to retreat, regroup and reapply themselves.


    In regard to”

    “Unfortunately for them, there really isn’t a way to take a day or two off to retreat, regroup and reapply themselves.”

    I think if Mr. President would spend a couple of days in his office instead of giving speeches and going on TV he might be able to regroup and reapply himself.

    If anything has been proven here it’s that sometimes you can have too much media attention. Eventually, people will want you to just shut up and do something…


  10. <i>For President Bush, it was 30,000 troops to Iraq. For President Obama, it’s 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.</i>

    I can go back a little further, Paul.  I remember clips of speeches from President Johnson; then it was 50,000 more troops to Vietnam.

  11. The article makes a very basic point, and IMHO a bigger one than intended. We all realize its truth, yet we all are fooled by it from time to time, and it’s this…A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words, Even If The 1000 Words Don’t Really Apply To That Picture.

    I enter into evidence the moving and iconic Rosenthal image of the SECOND Iwo Jima flag-raising…the one that moved, stirred, and even rallied a nation, yet passed virtually unnoticed by those brave Marines and sailors who had already been so moved and rallied by the FIRST flag-raising on Suribachi.

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