Obama's 'Ass to Kick' Moment: The Definitive Guide

Surprisingly sharp political analysis of a presidential swear

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It was the presidential soundbite heard 'round the Internet. In an interview on the Today Show, Matt Lauer suggested that the president "kick some butt" and get angry about the BP oil spill. Obama did Lauer one better:

I was down there a month ago before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf... I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers -- so I know whose ass to kick.

As the curse word left the president's mouth reporters began packaging stories about Obama's tough, aggressive rhetoric. The Wire knows that some readers grow tired of the breathless, bloodsport-style punditry that pervades much of the media. So we rounded up the most detached, self-aware comments about the president's colorful words.

  • Let's Look at Historical Precedent, writes legal expert Jonathan Turley: "I do not happen to be one of those critical of the President for a lack of shouting and posturing — though I do find his overall response to be overall poor. This reminds me of Michael Dukakis being criticized for not pounding the table after a remarkably moronic question from Bernard Shaw about his wife being raped. There is room to criticize Obama for his delay in going down to the Gulf and relatively few visits to the area — as well as the overall weak governmental response. However, I do not need a Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the desk to satisfy my inner angry self. Even if you wanted more emotion, this type of comment would have been more powerful if you didn’t get the feeling that Axelrod is holding up a board reading 'More Anger.'"
  • Take a Closer Look at the Interview, writes Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic: "President Obama did not conjure up the posterior metaphor on his own. He turned Matt Lauer's 'butt' into an 'ass,' and his annoyance seemed to be more a consequence of Lauer's questions than of any effort to appear angry.    Appearing angry and appearing engaged are two different things. The White House understands how anger can be appropriately channeled and employed, but at this point, they are eager for the public to see the president as engaged -- as problem solving.  If President Obama hadn't said "ass," then he'd be accused of not being angry enough. Because he did say 'ass,' he's accused of titrating his response to criticisms that he's not angry enough about the oil leak. The man cannot win.
  • It's 2010, People  No one cares about minor curse words, argues James Joyner at Outside the Beltway: "This isn’t the 1950′s, so I can’t imagine that most people will think it’s that big of a deal, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the right-wing chatter machine tried to make it the outrage of the day for Tuesday."
  • This Is Routine Presidential Cursing, writes Ron Dzwonkowski at The Detroit Free Press:
Obama’s expression was fairly mild by contemporary political standards, when vice presidents go around dropping f-bombs.

George H.W. Bush, when he was vice president under Ronald Reagan, used a variation of Obama’s expression — “we kicked a little ass,” he said — to describe his performance in a debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 campaign.

And historians would surely consider Obama pretty tame compared to some other modern presidents, notably Lyndon Baines Johnson.

"People said my language was bad," Richard Nixon once remarked of his predecessor in the White House, "but Jesus, you should have heard LBJ."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.