Shortly after being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama faced his first major crisis: being criticized for not wearing a suit coat in one of his first “working” Oval Office photos.
Since the criticizer was Andrew Card, George W. Bush’s former chief of staff, I’ll take his indignation with a grain of salt. Mr. Card was actually pretty harsh in his commentary on President Obama’s shirtsleeves picture; more or less accusing him disrespecting the formality and very sanctity of the office.
Much has been made about former President Bush’s strict suit and tie rule while in the Oval. Mr. Card made it clear that under President Bush’s tenure no deviation was allowed because the level of deference due to the Oval Office’s stature demanded it.
As these things have a way of playing out, within hours of Card’s rebuke at least one Oval Office photo of then-President Bush, in shirtsleeves, made its debut in cyberspace. More importantly, other photos of jacket-less presidents began popping up: Ford, Reagan, Carter and Clinton to name a few. Were they showing disrespect to the office, and by extension the Office, too?
Of course not and neither is President Obama. I won’t go so far as to say this is a manufactured controversy; rather, I think there are a few folks out there who fear a “casualization” of the presidency. Perhaps they see Mr. Obama as too laid back, too informal and his not wearing a suit coat in the Oval confirms their worst fear. Too much “change.”
Oh please. Was he wearing dirty jeans and an old Harvard sweatshirt covered in chili dog stains? No. He was attired in the de rigueur uniform of heads of state across the planet. There is no story here. Well, almost no story.
Living and working in Washington for as long as I have has taught me that when it comes to messaging, the White House – any president’s White House – is deliberate. That picture above, sure to become an iconic portrait of President Obama, was deliberately chosen to convey two messages. (1) The new president is hard at work, and (2) he is not George Bush.
President Bush, though always properly attired, even natty at times, never seemed very comfortable in business dress to me. Back on the ranch in Crawford, wearing a tee shirt, jeans, ropers and Stetson, the then-president seemed far more natural and himself.
Yet in the confines of the formal presidency – the president the world sees on TV and out doing his job – Bush was doggedly appropriately attired. I remember once speaking with one of Mr. Bush’s Washington, D.C., tailors and he showed a bolt of beautiful Harris tweed destined to become an odd jacket for the president. I loved it, though at the time I could not quite imagine his wearing it. Regardless, he always looked appropriate even if he seemed to chafe a bit in his suit.
So yes, Mr. Bush was a well dressed president who cared about how the office is presented and perceived – part of the reason for his “suits only” Oval Office rule. But his is not the only appropriate model of White house dress. Leaving aside President Clinton’s reputation for wearing sweats while working at the Resolute Desk, all presidents put their stamp of personal style on the office.
President Obama is by any measure already a fashion icon, having appeared on just about every fashion magazine cover before even taking the oath of office. Though not outrageous or trendy the new president has already put a clearly modern and fresh stamp on presidential style.
His tie-less look on the campaign trail was so thoroughly analyzed and envied that it wound up as a story in the Wall Street Journal. Where most politicians or businessmen would look to have forgotten their ties, Mr. Obama appeared sharp, stylish, and professional.
One of the reasons his no tie look is so distinctive and polished is that often he was wearing separates – the suit coat and trousers were of slightly varying hues. This trick breaks up the visual “oneness” that a suit presents so when a tie is removed from the equation, the overall look does not appear incomplete to the observer. Also, when going sans-tie, Mr. Obama chose to wear shirts with shorter collar points and a higher button stance, so that the look was both natural and proportional to the overall outfit.
As president, Mr. Obama has already established his public face and it is farmiliar: dark blue or gray suit, white shirt and appropriate ties. His off duty wardrobe, or at least off podium wardrobe, remains approachable and familiar to most men, with the exception of all those new jackets sporting the presidential seal. He called his Air Force One windbreaker “spiffy.”
So, back to “shirt sleeves-gate”; I think that the nation, and the world, can rest easy knowing that the president has not abandoned all sense of propriety and decorum. He just took off his jacket, kept his tie on, and went to work.