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.
By Linda Feldmann
WASHINGTON — 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 — was 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
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
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 Guantánamo, 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
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
“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.