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September 8, 2011

The President of the United States Requests Permission to Enter!

Though the Souza photo is a year old, it’s interesting seeing it show up now in TIME’s “Walter Reed Hospital: End of an Era” slideshow.

I’m sure the White House thought this scene conveyed sensitivity and a sense of respect, the President knocking first at the vets door intending to present him or her with a purple heart. Given the country’s political straights and what we’ve observed of Obama so far, however, I imagine others might argue the photo (beyond documenting the President’s obsequious toward the military) captures a dramatically different quality — one reflecting on leadership and authority.

In contrast to other presidential pics in the show, in which we see Harding and Bush in the presence of the recovering fighting men, we see Obama — in a task more typically associated with an aide — informing us he’d rather “ask first.” There’s not only that, however, but the added element of the woman soldier’s face, the concerned look broadcasting the risk, in the mere approach, that the Commander-in-Chief and the most powerful man on planet Earth, could either be ignored or turned away.

While trying to imagine a JFK, LBJ or Bill Clinton posing in similar fashion (as I kill time before Obama’s big jobs pitch to Congress in a couple-of-hours), I flash on more current parallels. Shift the setting to the last couple of mind-numbing budget battles, for example, and the halls of Congress, and I’m wondering: is it that hard to see POTUS standing there, instead, at the door to Speaker Boehner or Majority Leader McConnell’s office?

(photo: Pete Souza/White House caption: President Barack Obama knocks on the door before entering a soldier’s room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Aug. 30, 2010. The President met with 24 wounded warriors who served in Afghanistan, five who served in Iraq, and honored 11 soldiers with the Purple Heart. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

  • Anonymous

    Showing respect (in this case, for the wounded soldier’s privacy) costs next to nothing whereas an act of disrespect can potentially cost nearly everything in this social transaction. Whereas his predecessor bluffed and bullied his way through eight years of being way out of his depth by asserting privilege at every opportunity, BHO’s life story supports a different approach. Knock first.

  • Momly

    Dude. I see manners and respect. 

  • Anonymous

    I see a man with enough confidence to be respectful. It’s a powerful picture.

  • Sirius_TheStarDog

    I was raised to knock first before opening a closed door.
    Maybe young Barack was raised that way…too.

  • Guest1

    I just got through sitting with my mother at the hospital for several days.  No one ever entered the room without knocking, even if the door wasn’t completely closed.  I don’t understand the criticism of Obama for following the rules that we’ve been taught since we were children–knock on a closed door before you enter the room.  Maybe the woman soldier has such a concerned look on her face because she knows that the soldier in the hospital room is gravely wounded.

  • Guest1

    I just got through sitting with my mother at the hospital for several days.  No one ever entered the room without knocking, even if the door wasn’t completely closed.  I don’t understand the criticism of Obama for following the rules that we’ve been taught since we were children–knock on a closed door before you enter the room.  Maybe the woman soldier has such a concerned look on her face because she knows that the soldier in the hospital room is gravely wounded.

  • karen h

    I think everybody, Michael and commenters, are right about this photo. It does show a man who was raised right and who, and at his core, is considerate and thoughtful. There are two other (more metaphorical) aspects of this photo that hinge on this literal interpretation. I’m reminded of how Obama has, to a degree, modeled his presidency after Lincoln. It would be hard to imagine that president with handlers and prep people who prepared each patient for a visit from president. I could imagine Bush traveling to visit the wounded with an entourage of staff PR flaks, but not Lincoln and not Obama. On a more detached metephorical level, I wonder what this photo says about Obama’s relationship to the military. There’s Bush bluster, assumed superiority, even arrogance….then there’s Obama’s deference. And for awhile, before it wore very thin, the American voting public seemed to prefer that kind of attitude. So I also see in this photo someone tentive and unsure about his relationship to a military that is now more powerful and independent than it ever has been. Hence the look on the woman’s face, human and uncontrolled, rather than the “at attention” stare military attendees are supposed to wear. And the tentative knocking rather than the striding in. Even if Bush knocked in the same manner, I can’t imagine allowing a photo that showed that. Guess it remains to be seen how the public interprets his attitude. They may still want a Bush/Perry bouncing around.

    • karen h.

      Not that it matters, but to clarify, I meant that for a while the voting public seemed to prefer Bush’s cowboy approach to the military. I also think that wore very thin by the end of Bush’s second term.

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