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Is Barack Obama Too Manly?

by James Joyner on 26 October 2009

President Obama and golf partners, including the White House assistant chef Sam Kass, right, during his vacation in August. Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Obama and golf partners, including the White House assistant chef Sam Kass, right, during his vacation in August. Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At first blush, Mark Liebowitz‘ NYT essay “Man’s World at White House? No Harm, No Foul, Aides Say” reads like a serious piece about feminists are genuinely concerned about a male-dominated culture in the West Wing. After awhile, however, one begins to suspect it’s a PR exercise to make President Obama seem more manly.

Does the White House feel like a frat house?

The suspicion flared in recent weeks — and not for the first time — after President Obama was criticized by women’s advocates and liberal bloggers for hosting a high-level basketball game with no female players.

The president, after all, is an unabashed First Guy’s Guy. Since being elected, he has demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of college hoops on ESPN, indulged a craving for weekend golf, expressed a preference for adopting a “big rambunctious dog” over a “girlie dog” and hoisted beer in a peacemaking effort.

He presides over a White House rife with fist-bumping young men who call each other “dude” and testosterone-brimming personalities like Rahm Emanuel, the often-profane chief of staff; Lawrence Summers, the brash economic adviser; and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, who habitually speaks in sports metaphors.

The technical foul over the all-male game has become a nagging concern for a White House that has battled an impression dating to the presidential campaign that Mr. Obama’s closest advisers form a boys’ club and that he is too frequently in the company of only men — not just when playing sports, but also when making big decisions.

Uh huh.

“Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer. Ms. Myers said women have high expectations of the president. “Obama has a personal style that appeals to women,” she said. “He is seen as a consensus builder; he is not a towel snapper and does not tell crude jokes.”

Ooh, so he’s not only a Guy’s Guy, but he’s mature and sensitive, too? Oh, my!

Mr. Obama, in an interview with NBC on Wednesday, called the beef over basketball “bunk,” saying that the players were largely picked from a regular Congressional game and that the list of invitees was reviewed by women on his staff. “I don’t think it sends any kind of message or signal whatsoever,” said the president, who often points out that he is surrounded by strong females at home (where he is the only non-canine male). He added, in the interview, that he had hired women into “some of the most important decision-making positions in this White House.”

OK. He loses a couple of Man Points here for 1) blaming the selection of his basketball team on female staffers and 2) having female staffers pick his basketball team.

Mr. Obama is hardly the first commander in chief whose penchant for sports and other guyish stuff (comic books, “Star Trek”) has become part of his presidential persona. The first President George Bush presented himself as a horseshoe-playing, pork-rind-eating Texan. He was followed by the Big Mac-gobbling, cigar-chomping Bill Clinton and the brush-clearing, bike-busting George W. Bush. It worked to good effect, said Mark McKinnon, a media adviser and mountain bike companion of the latter Mr. Bush.

Aside from perhaps the brush-clearing, is there any reason to believe any of this is affect? There’s every reason to believe Bush 41 likes horseshoes and pork rinds and Clinton liked hamburgers and cigars. And all these men were demonstrably avid sportsmen in their day.

As to the merits of the culture clash issue, these passages put it in perspective:

In interviews, five women who work in the White House or advised officials there described the culture with more of a collective eye-roll than any real sense of grievance or discomfort. One junior aide, who like the other women spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about appearing publicly critical, said that the “sports-fan thing at the White House” could become “annoying” and that her relative indifference to athletics could be mildly alienating. And while this is not uncommon in any workplace, sports bonding can afford a point of entree with the boss.


Recreation is only one source of affinity within a White House culture, people there say. Obama veterans describe a camaraderie forged over a grueling campaign and a merciless nine months at the White House. It is not about gender, they say, but shared experience. “Many of us have known each other for a long time, and we have brother-and-sister kind of relationships,” said Jen Psaki, the deputy press secretary, who works in an office with seven other spokesmen under 35, all “brothers” from the campaign.


Ms. Dunn said that she recently hosted a baby shower for an administration official and that no men from the office were invited. She is comfortable with that — just as she is fine with never playing basketball with the president. “That is just part of the culture here that I am excluded from,” she said. “And I don’t care.”

Quite right. Women are in very powerful roles in this administration, as they have been in the last several administrations. That’s the direction our culture has taken over the last three decades or so. But it doesn’t mean that men and women aren’t going to still tend to have different interests.

Just once, I’d like to see Obama break out of campaign mode and give an honest answer to silly questions like this. He’s a very good basketball player, especially for a middle aged Harvard Law graduate with a busy schedule. Unless he’s going to invite elite level women’s players (i.e., people good enough for the Olympics or the WNBA) they’re not going to be very good competition. For that matter, aside from pre-pubescent children, who ever heard of co-ed basketball teams?

No worries, though, Obama invited Melody Barnes, his chief domestic policy advisor, to play golf with him Sunday. Which, naturally, was widely reported.

Seriously, this kerfuffle — and Obama’s reaction to it — are silly.  Obama is a man.  He likes to spend some quality time with other men doing things men do.  There’s no need to apologize for that.

About James Joyner

James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway and the managing editor of a DC think tank. He's a former Army officer, Desert Storm vet, and college professor. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama.

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