Not Fit for Dinner: Placing #ObamaInHistory

Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

The 2012 presidential election campaign is increasing in hostility (on both ends), as many expected it would. President Barack Obama faced the prospect of potential criticism over his connection with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who made headlines in 2008 for his “inflammatory rhetoric” and his call for God to “damn” America. The tactic was, however, rejected (fortunately).

At present, though, Obama and his staff are trying to extinguish a fiery backlash over the White House website’s newly modified President biographies. Starting with President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), short “Did you know?” blips were included at the end of each mini-biography. Those blips connected each President’s achievements with things Obama is trying to continue, if not take a step further.

The surge of criticism against the website modifications has not stopped. It started when Rory Cooper of the Heritage Foundation tweeted regarding the modified biographies. A new hash-tag trend, #ObamaInHistory, spread worldwide quickly. Cooper followed his tweet up with a piece titled “Morning Bell: President Me,” in which he speculates the modifications are “a glaring example of the President putting himself ahead of the sacred institution he is sworn to protect for the nation as well as his predecessors and successors.”

Other conservatives have followed suit. At The Blaze, Erica Ritz collected a sample of humorous (in an outlandish way) tweets, such as this: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. And President Obama was there to say it was good. #obamainhistory.Fox News suggested the “Did you knows” were an attempt “to tout an Obama administration policy or practice in the process.”

I’ll admit I don’t think the idea of adding “Did you knows” below modern presidents’ biographies was the wisest move. Critics of Obama go too far with their criticism, but the maneuver is indeed somewhat gimmicky and distasteful. Obama has been more tactful in linking himself to former presidents like Ronald Reagan in speeches and debates.

But even if the “Did you knows” were a sub-par strategy, the backlash has been exaggerated and misleading. The language and tone used in critiques creates the erroneous impression that Obama is a revisionist having a heyday photo-shopping himself into the annals of history. As White House officials have noted, the biographies themselves have not been revised. In response to the White House’s explanation, Ritz asked, “How can you add something, without altering the original?” She didn’t ask a dumb question (it was rhetorical), but she didn’t exactly ask a smart one either.

Critics of the modifications to biographies create the impression that the White House website biographies are definitive biographies. Granted, the biographies should be no means include false information about American presidents. But we should remember that these biographies are but snip-its of presidencies. They are by no means complete or thorough. If someone genuinely wants to learn about the presidency of, say, Reagan or Coolidge, that person would do well to read Lou Cannon on Reagan or Robert Sobel on Coolidge.

What seems to be missing from much of the criticism over the modifications is a proper grasp of history. It’s improper to treat something like the history of a president’s time in office as though its impact stopped when a succeeding president was sworn in. It’s well to remember that history is a continuum, and everyone lives and acts in the wake of history. We can disagree about the connections made on the President biography pages, but we we would be mistaken to think that Obama is ahistorical and is leading America in a past-less present.

Christians should reject and distance themselves from this criticism. There is a long-standing biblical tradition in which leaders and kings of the Israelites valued their history and tried to grasp how their role was in continuing the work begun by their forefathers. If Obama were to start portraying himself in messianic terms as the long-awaited President-Savior of America, there would be a problem. Such is thankfully not the case, though. Even if done in an inappropriate setting, Obama is only estimating his place among his presidential predecessors—never a bad idea.

About C. Ryan Knight

C. Ryan Knight teaches English at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, NC, and he lives with his wife outside Greensboro, NC.
Email: knight.cr@gmail.com

  • Adam Carrington

    The criticisms I’ve heard from the right are not that President Obama is revising history. It is that, by attaching himself to past Presidents in the way he does here, he continues a long history of actions that display a self-absorption exceptionally high for even political figures. He does not seem to be “estimating his place among his presidential predecessors” but using a part of the White House website normally reserved for informing on the history of the Presidency as one more means to talk about and taut…himself. While he shouldn’t be accused of revising history, the jokes made seem appropriate and deserved ribbing.

  • http://ocdmusician.com John, from TX

    I must agree with Adam, because of your closing: “If Obama were to start portraying himself in messianic terms as the long-awaited President-Savior of America, there would be a problem.:

    This is exactly the way he has portrayed himself, and the way the media has portrayed him. Narcissism and pathological lying are problem in Biblical history, too. I think murdering babies is probably not a “Christian” solution, nor is purposefully violating hundreds of laws in and attempt to destroy – sorry, “fundamentally transform” America.

    Are we not called to bring “Light” and truth into our culture? Maybe the tactics are questionable, but have you watched Bill Maher, Jon Stewart or Colbert? Or any of the 1000′s of Marxist elites obama has pulling his strings and paying his way.

    I could go on for pages, but books on obama’s crimes have already been written. Dinesh D’Souza has books AND a movie about this coming in the summer:

    http://www.lunchcrab.com/scriptures170085/2016-movie-obamas-america/

    My apologies for sounding angry. I am angry, but not at you. I am angry that the deception promised in the last days has begun. Not at you, not at God – He told us this would happen.

    Have you been deceived by these serpents, or are you asking for something more like this:

    http://www.salemoffers.com/campaign/jan-mar-2012/rc/bannersCPL

    Yes, as Christians we should PRAY and exhort and PRAY and vote. “Wise as serpents but harmless as doves.” Now that’s change I can believe in. ;)

    And I will go further, if this your point, as Christians our actions and words should be above
    reproach, so profoundly different than the mudslinging tactics of the left that even the most hardened leftist must acknowledge the difference.

    IF we had a Christian running for president, it would much easier to do. But with a muslim-marxist-narcissist-pathological liar on one side and a left-leaning mormon cult leader on the other…?

    We need a Miracle.

  • Adam Carrington

    Ouch, John. Pretty harsh, mean-spirited and perhaps could have waited till you weren’t angry. I don’t think, as you seem to imply, that President Obama is a sort of anti-Christ figure. He certainly allowed portrayals of himself, especially in 2008, that attributed Messianic qualities (the “oceans receding, planet healing” stuff). But that was more sound and fury, a realization of the cult of personality and a very effective marketing strategy than a literal self-perception. Distasteful for sure, but not on the level of absolute, anti-Biblical evil. I also don’t believe he is a Muslim, an assertion that is pretty un-substantiated. His true religious beliefs seem hard to pin down beyond some culturally Christian influences the more I hear him speak on the matter. I furthermore don’t know about the pathological lying and crimes. He certainly loves a straw man, regularly misrepresenting opponents. But while I do find he is not confronted with doing so nearly as much as he should be, it doesn’t rise to pathological liar, especially in politics. I in addition don’t think the “marxist” label is helpful. He does want to move America toward European-style Social Democracy, which I think a very bad move. But I don’t think he is a full-blown Marxist or that calling him such is helpful to criticizing him in ways that persuadable voters will find convincing. Better to argue your philosophical/policy differences, which I think give plenty of reason to look for different leadership. Same with Romney, whose position as 1) cult-leader and 2) left-leaning seem, in the first place, mean-spirited and not germane and, in the second, questionable.

  • C. Ryan Knight

    Adam, thanks for your thoughtful comments. True, prominent conservatives have generally avoided using the term “revision,” opting instead for “append” (Fox), “amend” (The Blaze), etc. If you run a basic Google search, though, you’ll find scores of small-scale conservative bloggers using the term. In one sense, revision is used in its literal sense: making slight changes to something already in print. What seems to be the case to me, though, is evocation of the more dangerous meaning of revision: the falsification of facts for the purpose of misleading, distorting history, etc.

    Here’s an interesting tidbit I noticed with Erica Ritz’s piece on #ObamaInHistory. The actual title on the webpage is “Making History: WH Ridiculed on Twitter for Altering Presidential Biography Pages.” The web address, however, is “www.theblaze.com/stories/rewritinghistory . . .” I’m speculating here, but I suspect Ritz’s piece originally used the word “rewriting,” but it was changed by her editor(s), whatever his/her/their reason(s) may have been. So why the difference in terms between the actual title and the web address? At any rate, if you Google “Obama rewriting history,” Ritz’s article is the top piece to appear (if you get the same results I do when you run the search). Again, I may be reading too much into this, but it seems to be the result of more than chance.

    Lastly, I’ll raise the point that there’s an overwhelming pressure laid upon presidents to demonstrate progress and success–and that seems to be exactly what Obama is doing. What incumbent president wouldn’t do this during an election year? Even after presidents leave the White House, the trend is to write a memoir reflecting on one’s presidency — that is, one’s successes (and, alas, failures). So, I don’t see Obama’s actions as extraordinary but quite normal and to be expected. Call it successes or decision points — it’s the same thing, though, is it not?

    John, I’ll simply defer to what Adam said in response to your comment.

  • MKRoss

    Ryan,
    I wasn’t going to comment on this post as I think it is a non-issue, but then I saw some good old-fashioned millennialism poking it’s head out in John’s comment so I’ll add this to the conversation:

    The executive office of our form of government has slowly been taking more power away from our legislative bodies since its inception. I won’t say America is becoming an autocracy because I see corporations wielding far too much power in creating and influencing legislation to rule out the idea of a corporatocracy. That being said, I think Obama stands out to many as some sort of anti-Christ not because of anything he has done specifically, but because the amount of power his position has now commands.

    Consider the executions via droning of suspected, not convicted just suspected terrorists.
    Consider the constant erosion of the Bill of Rights and the concept of habeus corpus.
    Consider the constant invasions and takeovers of sovereign nations without any formal declaration of war by our representatives.
    Consider the continued practice of indefinite detention of foreign nationals in undisclosed black-ops bases.
    Consider the threat of indefinite detention of American citizens both domestic and abroad via multiple legislative attempts.

    All of these grievances are the products of former presidents, including one who was outspoken about his Christian faith. The concept of an end times has reared it’s head before, both here and in Europe and generally happens in periods of great social and financial upheaval. In any case, I sincerely doubt that Obama really has much to do with the info placed on a website so much as the interns and campaign people are prepping for the run-up to the next election.

  • Daniel

    Well said, MKRoss.

    Sometimes I think that criticisms of Obama are totally missing the point, focusing on things like what his preacher said, what his wife said, or some supposed socialist agenda.

    What you listed are the real crimes of our President. The reason why these points are rarely brought up by the opposition is because they support those things, too.

    Though I agree that since the beginning of the Republic there has been a move to the imperial presidency, things really heated up since our response to 9/11. And the sad thing is that there is no true opposition, just two fueding families wanting to wield the new powers of the imperial presidency.

  • Sta

    Ryan, I was pretty much in tune with your thoughts until the last paragraph when you say “Christians should reject and distance themselves from this criticism.” Why? Simply because in Old Testament tradition, kings often invoked the actions of their predecessors to bolster their own reputations or to reinforce the notion that their actions were in line with those of their predecessors? I see that as a bit of a weak argument and insufficient reason to refrain from measured criticism.

    Just one example: I can think of no two presidents who were further apart in their ideas of the role of government than Barack Obama and Ronald Regan. President Obama’s attempts to resurrect the memory of Regan as justification of, or support for, his own polices is, at the very least, revisionist. Not to mention an attempt at manipulation of the American electorate.

    If the argument is that this particular round of criticism of President Obama by non-Christians is understandable, if not necessarily acceptable but neither understandable or acceptable for Christians seems to me overly prohibitive. I agree that as a Christian, the way I express criticism of our President is governed by constraints not necessarily imposed on non-Christians, but I see no constraint that forbids measured, truthful criticism. The White House actions are, in my opinion, clearly an attempt to manipulate electorate attitude by claiming alignment with other leaders where alignment, if it does exist, is nebulous at best and an outright distortion at worst. Such actions are, I believe, deserving of my respectful, measured criticism.


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