‘Emperor Obama' just the latest insult in the great tradition of presidential insults

Over-the-top rhetoric nothing new

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A Google search for the phrase “Emperor Obama” yields 214,000 results.  A typical usage comes from Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman: “If ‘Emperor Obama’ ignores the American people and announces an amnesty plan that he himself has said over and over again exceeds his constitutional authority, he will cement his legacy of lawlessness and ruin the chances for congressional action on this issue – and many others.”

Jeepers, a legacy of lawlessness! A hearing in the House Judiciary Committee this week was titled, “President Obama's Executive Overreach on Immigration.” 

Rep. Raul Labrador, a Republican from Idaho, went on Face the Nation to declare that the president should be censured.

The editor of the National Review thinks the speaker should tell the president that he isn’t welcome to come to the House Chamber to deliver the State of the Union Address. He can email it.

If all this sounds overheated and out of proportion, it isn’t -- at least not by historical standards.

Calling a president a king or an emperor is probably the single oldest and commonest presidential insult.

As Rob Goodman, the author of “Rome’s Last Citizen,’ writes in Politico:

In America, “down with kings” stands right beside “Hail to the Chief.” Presidents on our side are “strong executives,” presidents on the other side are “tyrants.” An American president is almost always a king to someone. To his enemies, John Adams was “His Rotundity, the Duke of Braintree,” who was just as likely to hand the crown over to his son John Quincy as to leave office peaceably. Andrew Jackson made unprecedented use of the veto power and was dubbed “King Andrew the First.” For freeing slaves by executive order, President Lincoln became “Abraham Africanus I.” His successor was merely King Andy. And on into our time: King Franklin I, Kings Harry and Dick, King George the Younger and Emperor Obama (perhaps a victim of monarchy inflation).

Indeed, the current crop of presidential insults is tamer compared to their heyday, which might have been the campaign of 1800. James Callender, a polemicist in cahoots with Thomas Jefferson, called John Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

An unnamed wag in the Adams camp returned fire, calling Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

Rich Rubino, who wrote “The Political Bible of Humorous Quotations from American Politics,” adds context and perspective:

Theodore Roosevelt was brilliant at leveling insults, not only directed at his political adversaries, but often directed at his political allies. In 1889, Roosevelt was appointed to serve on the Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison; however, Roosevelt was less than grateful when Harrison failed to support his ideas for Civil Service Reform. Roosevelt blasted the President, calling him "a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician." Harrison retorted that the young Roosevelt "wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset." In 1898, while serving as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Roosevelt became convinced that President William McKinley was a vacillator. He said of the President, "McKinley had no more backbone than a chocolate éclair." Ironically, in 1900 Roosevelt became McKinley's Vice Presidential Running Mate.

One might even note that an adviser to candidate Obama in 2008 called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” That would be Samantha Power, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Guns everywhere]

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.

Print this article Back to Top