Why people feel free to heckle President Obama

While numbers are elusive, President Obama seems to be the most-heckled president in a long time – particularly from people on the left. Some might be trying to get him off script.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama attempts to respond to Ju Hong (lower left), who began to heckle him about anti-deportation policies Monday at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco.

Heckling politicians is as old as the hills, but when a young man standing behind President Obama began shouting at him during an event Monday, that seemed especially noteworthy.

After all, the man – a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant from South Korea named Ju Hong – had been invited by the White House to stand there as part of the “human wallpaper” often seen at presidential events.

And yet even, or maybe especially, in that privileged spot, Mr. Hong felt compelled to interrupt Mr. Obama’s scripted remarks on immigration and call on the president to stop deportations. Obama waved off the Secret Service, which was moving to escort Hong from the room, and addressed his complaint – denying he could use his executive power to halt deportations.

To many observers, instances of the president being heckled are on the rise – particularly, in the case of Obama, by those to his left – though numbers are scarce. Even Mark Knoller of CBS Radio, keeper of myriad presidential statistics, begs off: “Sorry, haven’t kept a heckle count.”  

Gregg Lindskog, a presidential scholar at Millersville University who has researched sociopolitical disruption, feels certain that Obama has been heckled more than his two predecessors. “It would be hard to debate that,” he says.

The question, then, is why? Theories center on a general rise in public incivility, Obama’s race, growth of partisan media, and the rise of political polarization and political “cocooning” – people choosing to live and associate with people of like-minded views.  

“We’re increasingly living in this dichotomous American society,” says Mr. Lindskog. “When you’re in those echo chambers, there’s an incentive to be the most liberal or the most conservative.”

When Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina shouted, “You lie!” to Obama in 2009 during an address to a joint session of Congress on health-care reform, members of both parties condemned his action. Congressman Wilson was formally rebuked by the House, but his stock rose among conservatives.

Obama’s legitimacy as president has long been a source of debate on the right, and that doubt may be empowering some on the right to challenge the president to his face. Wilson himself questioned Obama’s birthplace in a radio interview not long after he accused the president of lying.  

As eyebrow-raising as the Wilson outburst was, it is the heckling of Obama from the left that requires more explanation. In his five years as president, his speeches have been interrupted numerous times by pleas to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, close Guantànamo, end drone strikes, free Army whistle-blower Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, and do more via executive action for gays and illegal immigrants.

There’s a pattern to how the disruptions unfold. Activists gain access to a presidential event, wait until the president is well into his remarks, and then start shouting, sometimes unfurling banners to give the TV some visuals to go with the audio. The president then responds respectfully, even if disagreeing with their point. Only then, if the yelling still doesn’t end, does security remove the disrupters. The hecklers are rewarded with news coverage.

After interrupting a presidential speech in Syracuse, N.Y., last August, Ursula Rozum explained her actions in a column.

“President Obama was not going to see or hear our message from the corner of Robinson Street and Teall Avenue, three blocks away,” wrote Ms. Rozum.

To Jarret Lovell, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton there’s a central reason why activists need to engage in activities that some might see as rude or disrespectful: the fact that everything in politics is “scripted,” from public speeches, to political conventions, to congressional hearings.

“What we’ve been seeing with heckling, dating before Obama, but especially with Obama, is this ability of activists to break the script,” says Mr. Lovell, himself a progressive activist. “Heckling puts these political leaders on their toes.”

Obama himself is partly to blame, Lovell says, because he has failed in his promise to be more transparent and accountable. Lovell sees short-term benefit in knocking the president off his teleprompter, and forcing him to speak from the heart. But he worries that in the long run, these episodes end up leaving the hecklers in a negative light. Part of it is, yes, the script that presidents follow when they’re heckled.  

“Politicians have their standard response: ‘In America, we allow for freedom of speech,’ ” Lovell says. “They come across as generous. Doing the right thing is somehow generous.”

Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on White House communications at Towson University in Maryland, suggests that Obama might be opening himself up to more disruptions because of how the White House allocates tickets to events.  

“When Bush was president, they were very careful about who they gave tickets to when he had an event. It was not an open kind of thing,” Ms. Kumar says. “It’s more open with Obama, and therefore you’re going to have more heckling.”

And when the president replies respectfully to hecklers, that may only encourage more. When first lady Michelle Obama was heckled at a private Democratic Party fundraiser last June by a gay activist calling for the president to address employment discrimination, she threatened to leave.  

“One of the things I don’t do well is this,” she said. The protester was escorted out.

There haven't been reports of Mrs. Obama being heckled since. For activists, sticking with the president is probably a better bet.

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