Obama vs. President Obama

Long-time political columnist David Broder was on MPR’s Midday today, assessing President Barack Obama’s first-year performance.

But Broder’s use of “Obama” instead of President Obama rankled listener Robert Devine of New Brighton, who wrote, “It seems disrespectful to eliminate the normal title given to a high-office elected official … in the ongoing discussion and refer to them just by their last name. I would expect more from someone who has a deep background in journalism.”

This, you may recall (since I wrote about it here) is one of the most common complaints fielded by NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who notes that the format has been the NPR policy since the ’70s.

Frankly, we don’t hear it very often at MPR, where we use the Associated Press Stylebook, which instructs us to use President Obama on first reference and the last name on second and subsequent references. The Stylebook, though, isn’t infallible. After all, the AP says people who enter pleas in court of “not guilty,” should be described as having entered a plea of “innocent,” even though there’s no such plea in the American judicial system.

Mr. Devine points out, too, that what might work in a newspaper, sounds entirely different on the radio:

“My opinion is that live discussion should consistently maintain the title throughout the dialog. I tuned into the middle of Mr. Broder’s discussion and hearing him refer to the present and former presidents by their last name cause me to wonder how a person in his position could endorse a disrespectful practice. I realize he had no ill intention by that practice, but it did not reflect well on him, in my opinion. Modeling good respectful behavior in speech and conduct is something every younger generation greatly needs to witness.”

Mark Knoller, who covers the White House for CBS News, says that organization’s policy is to refer to the president as Mr. Obama on second references. During the Bush administration, he said people found that offensive, too.

If on every reference I called him “President Bush,” it would grate on the ear. By calling him “Mister Bush” on second reference, we make the report easier to understand – while at the same time – showing our respect.

Is there a political motivation in the complaint? Clark Hoyt of the New York Times certainly thought so when he responded to it in 2007. Besides, he said, nobody who actually puts his feet up in the Oval Office seems to mind.

But because she, Leslie and some other readers are disturbed, I went to the White House to see what folks there think about how the president is referred to in The Times.

Are they upset at the title “Mr. Bush?”

“No, not at all,” said Tony Fratto, the deputy press secretary. “There are lots of things we find disrespectful to the president, usually on the editorial page or in a news analysis, but we take no offense at his titled reference in news articles,” Fratto said.

“Remember,” he said, “We have citizen presidents. Mr. is a perfectly fine title.”

  • Brian F

    Do people seriously get worked up over stuff like this? How, exactly, does this qualify as disrespectful? And what *is* the journalistic precedent for use of titles (not just for a president — do I need to capitalize that? — but also for governors & mayors, legislators, school principals, CEOs…)?

  • This is one of the most frequent e-mail complaints I get at WCCO. We did a Good Question on the Mr. Obama/President Obama issue, which of course prompted e-mails that I never did stories like that when George Bush was president.


    My personal policy is to say: President Barack Obama followed by “the President.” It’s a conversational compromise, as no one in real life ever says: “Can you believe what President Barack Obama did today? Obama is out of his mind!”

  • Bob Collins

    Brian, never capitalize governor, president, senator unless there’s a name after it. That’s the sort of thing that gets ME — an editor (or one who made his living as one ) — worked up.

  • Bob Moffitt

    Leave your mailing address with Mr. Collins, Brian, and perhaps he will send you an AP Stylebook.

    The AP Stylebook is great. I need to order a new one soon.

  • bsimon

    “Brian, never capitalize governor, president, senator unless there’s a name after it. That’s the sort of thing that gets ME — an editor (or one who made his living as one ) — worked up.”

    But can listeners tell?

    Personally I try to go with President Obama/Bush first, then either ‘the President’ (sorry Bob) or the somehow-too-familiar Obama (or Bush, back then).

  • Kassie

    On my way home I heard on NPR a woman complaining that people aren’t calling our president “President Obama” or even “Obama”, but calling him “Barack.” Her complaint was that she never got to call Bush “George” and that there is a bit of racism in not giving him his proper respect.

  • Tyrone


    It have become so obvious the direct disrespect from the white control media constantly referring to President Obama as Obama or Mr. Obama! American history will show white American direct disrespect of minorities in general especially minorities in authority position! But in disrespecting President Obama the white control media in America are disrespecting the office of the President the Constitution and every living American and every American that gave their life for their country! Shamefully history has shown that white Americans care more about hate and dividing America and voting male only white only! White Americans make it hard for America to criticize other country treatment of their citizen! America treats minorities and especially women less then in America! White men have abuse every part of American institutions with hate and divide and discrimination! THAT IS A FACT!!! A level playing field has never been a white prospective! White are the majority in America and by their number they hold the advantage! That advantage is not good enough for many white Americans! White with their advantage have disrespected other with enslaving other human being! Jim Crow Laws Discrimination Sharecropping hate and dividing the country! The Constitution means nothing to many white Americans in our government! Respect of protocol mean nothing to many whites in law enforcement! This country could be the greatest country on earth! Making GOD our father proud! But not acknowledging the evil behavior I talked about! We bring shame to GOD’s earth!

  • Mary

    We wonder in America where the respect for people has gone. We wonder why the next generation does not respect adults. Young children are asked to call adults by their first names, teachers are Miss Judy instead of by their last name. Slowly things in America have changed, wiping out any privacy, shock or dismay in the news, movies, commercials and television. Now the highest office we have in America, the highest ranking officer in the military is called MISTER?!!! I do not understand, I do not agree, and I am not surprised by the disrespect people give based on this name. Do people not realize that our language and our actions are powerful, resulting in our follow-up responses, actions, and perceptions? How we think is how we behave, how we behave has impact on what others do. Do you not think that lowering our highest office to a rank of an “everyday man” will have a result? It already has. Another area that shows how America has gone downhill in our behavior and respect. How awful.