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Obama gaffes rated on sense, insensitivity

President Obama’s joke about his lack of bowling skills – “like Special Olympics or something” – has landed him in hot water.

President Obama’s joke about his lack of bowling skills – “like Special Olympics or something” – has landed him in hot water.

President Barack Obama’s latest verbal gaffe, a quip about the Special Olympics for which he apologized, raises questions about whether this new president is overexposed at a time when many Americans are focused on economic worries.

One presidential scholar says Obama has been “a hyperactive president” in his first two months, and that his appearance on Jay Leno’s talk show, where Obama made the ill-advised quip, was a vivid illustration of that.

“He is trying to do all four years in the first four months,” said Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin emeritus professor who has written extensively on presidential power. “There is no question that he is not only doing that in his appearances. But also in those appearances, he is introducing and promoting a whole set of policies before people even have sort of caught their breath from the last one.”

In January, Jones praised the steady preparation of Obama’s post-election transition.

But citing a blizzard of policy proposals and a full agenda of public appearances outside Washington, Jones said that Obama “has put so much out there, it is hard to know at this point what exactly are the priorities.”

Appearing on Leno, Obama mixed serious policy discussions with banter about his lack of bowling skills, saying that they were “like Special Olympics or something.” Obama later apologized to Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, a son of two powerful Democratic families – the Kennedys and Shrivers.

The Leno appearance came in a week in which Obama faced a political firestorm over executive pay bonuses at the bailed-out insurance giant AIG; publicly filled out a “March Madness” basketball bracket, drawing fire from Republicans who said he should have been paying attention to the economy; and attended campaign-style listening meetings in California.

Obama was on CBS’ “60 minutes” Sunday, and he will have a prime-time press conference Tuesday.

Jones said this public exposure, coupled with lingering problems filling out the Cabinet and unprecedented proposals to expand government, have made it difficult for Americans to get a fix on Obama because he’s “trying to do it all.”

“In this case, it seems to me that . . . we have got a hyperactive president,” Jones said. “We don’t have a presidency yet.”

This is not the first time Obama has apologized for an off-the-cuff remark. Shortly after the election, he called former first lady Nancy Reagan to apologize for joking about her having séances in the White House.

Nevada officials also were angry at a remark Obama made last month in Indiana. Pushing the $787 billion stimulus bill at a rally there, Obama criticized corporate executives who hold meetings in Las Vegas.

Obama didn’t apologize, but after meeting with travel industry officials, aides earlier this month made a point of saying companies had legitimate reasons to hold meetings in Las Vegas.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said Obama does not make many gaffes for as much extemporaneous speaking as he does. She said the problem with the Special Olympics remark “isn’t overexposure,” but whether it prompts analysts and critics to look for patterns of gaffes.

Jamieson agreed with Republicans who said the reaction would have been fiercer and quicker had former President George W. Bush made the same remark.

“A Democratic liberal is assumed to be supportive of those with special needs,” Jamieson wrote in an e-mail.

But that is also why Obama’s statement was hurtful, Jones said.

“If you said what he said at a cocktail party, it would be insensitive,” Jones said. “And that is what it is: insensitive.”

Chuck Raasch is political editor for Gannett News Service. E-mail: craasch@gns.gannett.com


Raasch’s blog: Get more behind-the-scenes reports, context and analysis about politicians and the political process in Raasch’s Furthermore blog. Look for it here.

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