A Deficit of Dignity
December 08, 2014, 5:00am

Contributing Op-Ed Writer

We know President Obama wants a lasting deal on immigration, something to make taxes fairer, a little help from a caveman Congress on climate change. If he’s lucky, he might get some of the above. But one thing his worst opponents have never given him, and probably never will, is respect. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

From the day he took office, his legitimacy has been challenged, his American birth has been suspect, and he’s been personally insulted, lectured, yelled at and disrespected in public, by public figures, in a way that few if any American presidents have ever faced.

The latest example of this may seem a trifle — the crude comments of a Republican congressional staffer, Elizabeth Lauten, about the first family. She resigned after making fun of Sasha and Malia Obama last month. And while Lauten certainly proved her shortcomings as a communications director, making the story about her instead of some platitudinous deed of her boss, Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, her swift resignation was seen as validation for the last line of civility still standing in uncivilized Washington.

The impulse insults that flow from social media are invariably dismissible, and often forgivable. This is your brain without filter. Add an extra dimension for the young and impetuous. But overlooked in Lauten’s Facebook takedown of the Obama kids was a lecture on their family values:

“Dear Sasha and Malia, I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play. Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department.”

The subtext, consistent with Republican treatment of the president since day one, is the idea that he and the first lady are not decent or normal people — expressed here as failed role models who have tarnished the positions they hold.

No one can know for sure what goes on behind closed doors in a family. But within the bubble that we can see, the Obamas have been an impressive unit, projecting an image worthy of emulation. Michelle Obama has tried to get Americans to exercise more and eat healthy, and has reached out to the families of veterans. In public, she and her husband are a feisty, often playful and complementary couple. The kids have hardly ruffled a feather, something almost no parent of a teenager can claim of their own.

One of the things that President Obama has started is an effort to connect young men of color to mentors — the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Family breakdown touches all races, whites increasingly. My Brother’s Keeper tries to find role models for young men coming of age at a time when two-thirds of African-American families are single-parent.

Many of the people who dwell in the uglier recesses of social media, or make casual conversation among the like-minded, will not grant Obama the family man the respect he has earned, or Obama the president the dignity that comes with the office.

I want to believe this is not about race, but it sure looks that way. Barely nine months into his presidency, a Republican congressman, Joe Wilson, shouted out “You lie!” at the president in the decorous setting of a joint session of Congress — a flagrant show of disrespect for the man and the office. For this, Wilson became a hero in conservative media.

The biggest slap at the president was the smear about his birth. It’s insulting and humiliating that Obama — alone among presidents — has been forced to release his long-form birth record to satisfy a clutch of fact-deniers. Leading the attack on the president’s very citizenship is the professional vulgarian Donald Trump, who gets away with the kind of preposterous, race-based comments granted few black public figures.

Trump’s displays of idiocy on Fox News are a staple of that network. I wait for the day when something Trump says that is both stupid and incendiary is held up as representative of all white people — and he’s asked to apologize for his race.

Also on Fox, Sean Hannity recently blamed President Obama for the troubles in Ferguson — because, I guess, he’s black.

The list goes on and on: Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, wagging her finger at President Obama while lecturing him on an airport tarmac, as if he were some errand boy and not the commander in chief. The complete fraud of the Benghazi nonstory — as even a Republican House panel had to conclude recently. The endless millions spent finding nothing scandalous about the president on Benghazi proved just one thing: how grass-roots conservative hatred of the president drives Republican congressional action.

The first lady herself is not off limits. It’s one thing to make fun of Nancy Reagan’s designer dresses. It’s quite another to ridicule Michelle’s Obama’s rear end, as the Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner did, trying to discredit the first lady’s Let’s Move initiative. Why a politician with a red bulbous nose and no discernable chin — the very caricature of a pampered political hack — feels that he’s in a position to comment on someone else’s appearance is another question.

The first lady cannot go on vacation without the Drudge Report hyping elaborate travel bills, playing to race insinuations. But when the family of Sarah Palin was involved in a beer-fueled, fist-flying brawl in Alaska this year, conservative media did not call them out for bad white family values, or failures as role models.

And don’t forget the assessment of Washington’s most reliable hypocrite, the shameless Newt Gingrich. “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions],” he said a few years ago, unveiling his great, race-based and entirely inaccurate epiphany about the president.

The disrespect continues to this day. Representative Paul C. Broun, Republican of Georgia, has suggested that Speaker John A. Boehner not invite the president to give his annual State of the Union speech before Congress next month.

You can call Obama a weak leader. You say he’s too aloof. You can disagree with his policies. You can suggest he’s acting like a king — thankfully, still an impressive insult in a country born in a bloody revolution against the British crown. But, for those who can’t even see the humanity in the man because of his race, try to respect the title that comes before his name. It’s there forevermore.