Join 3,551 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Dear Mr President, Am I Free to Say Your Name?
November 23, 2012 2:14 PM   Subscribe

Protocol demands the proper way to directly address the US President is as "Mr President." Has anyone (not related) to the current or former US President ever publicly addressed them by his first or last name directly to his face? What happened? If this hasn't happened, what would be the consequences of doing so?
posted by Effigy2000 to Law & Government (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Gordon Brown to President Obama. Nothing. Maybe some PR blowback, but nothing formal (unless you were a staffer or in the military or something, maybe).
posted by Jahaza at 2:27 PM on November 23, 2012


Gordon Brown to President Obama

Note that that was after Obama called him "Gordon."
posted by Dasein at 2:32 PM on November 23, 2012


John Stewart called President Obama "dude" and people took notice.

George W. Bush claimed in his memoir, Decision Points, that shortly after 9/11 a firefighter said to him "George, find the bastards who did this and kill them."
posted by sallybrown at 2:51 PM on November 23, 2012


In understanding the American perspective on these sorts of things, it might be instructive to read about how the convention of calling our chief executive 'Mr. President' came about. The idea was that the president should be considered to be a citizen just like any other, only one with a variety of additional responsibilities, and as dissimilar as possible from an entitled aristocrat. 'Mr. President' is only the formal style used and recommended by the US Government but you could literally call the President anything you liked, in or outside of his presence, so long as it did not communicate a threat to either the office or person. My understanding is that under almost any conceivable circumstance, aside from perhaps an opponent's concession speech, calling our current president 'Mr. Obama', or with the level of familiarity demanded by conventional English language etiquette 'Barack', would not be considered the least bit inappropriate.

Calling our current president 'Barack Hussein Obama' is pretty generally understood to be a really poorly disguised dog-whistle for implying that he is in someway foreign or unamerican, which is rude at best, but itself not in anyway illegal or a breach of protocol.

The only exception to this I could think of, aside from someone being an ass towards the president having trouble keeping a job that requires not being an ass to the president, would be from the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which requires that respect be given to a superior officer. However, while the president is very much the superior of everyone in the US Military, they are very much a civilian and Article 89 probably couldn't be said to actually apply.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:03 PM on November 23, 2012 [18 favorites]


In the United States, a government official can't "demand" much of anything with regards to what words people use to or about him. The Constitution doesn't allow it. Unless you're planning to call the President something that suggests that you pose a danger to him, you're free to say whatever you like to him or about him. If you're disruptive at an event, you might get kicked out, but there's nothing to stop you from calling the president Barack or Barry or Mr. Stupidhead. For example, The New York Times calls him Mr. Obama, per their house style. People might wring their hands and write newspaper columns about the death of manners if you stray too far from the etiquette books, but again, unless you're making threats or disrupting a presidential appearance, the law of the land here entitles you to call the president basically anything you like.
posted by decathecting at 3:08 PM on November 23, 2012


Why wouldn't Article 89 apply?
posted by Picklegnome at 3:25 PM on November 23, 2012


Military stuff.

He's the boss, highest guy in the chain of command. ("...in the chain of command" being the operative term here.) I would not want to be the E-4 who addressed the president as "Hey You over there..." My (military) lawyer might be able to keep me out of the brig, but I'm pretty sure the incident would show up at my promotion interview.

Next time Barack comes over to play pinochle I'll ask him what he thinks.
posted by mule98J at 3:26 PM on November 23, 2012


There's Article 88 to more precisely cover the President (and a few others).
posted by Etrigan at 3:42 PM on November 23, 2012


What Blasdelb said here is actually somewhat the impetus for my question. Here in Australia it's pretty much accepted you could call the Prime Minister by their first name and no one would bat an eyelid. But it seemed to me anytime anyone referred to the US President it was always "Mr President" and nothing else. When I tried Googling this, all I could find was the protocol requirement, but nothing about anytime anyone hadn't followed the protocol, which made me think it was pretty serious to do otherwise and seemed weird given the whole "All men are created equal" thing.

Answers so far have been very helpful. Thanks!
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:45 PM on November 23, 2012


Here in Australia it's pretty much accepted you could call the Prime Minister by their first name and no one would bat an eyelid.

I worked for the White House until this spring (in a short-term, low-level position of very little consequence) and not once did I ever hear anybody refer to the president as anything other than "the president," or, infrequently, "Obama." Certainly never "Barack." I suspect quite strongly that if a random citizen were to refer to him by his first name, others would become uncomfortable, and somebody would be likely to suggest that you be more polite. An invitation to return would not be forthcoming. If a federal employee were to do so, a stern phone call might be received by that person's supervisor. I yield to others on military repercussions, since I don't know anything about that.
posted by waldo at 4:49 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Why wouldn't Article 89 apply?"

The president is very specifically a civilian and not a military officer period. However as Etrigan has helpfully pointed out it seems I missed the previous article.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:53 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gordon Brown to President Obama. Nothing. Maybe some PR blowback, but nothing formal (unless you were a staffer or in the military or something, maybe).
posted by Jahaza


That's within protocol; they are both heads of government and hence of equal "rank". Obama also called the Austrailan Prime Minister "Julia".

But, Effigy2000 nothing would happen. It's not like it would be a crime. I know a title doesn't sound like equality, but consider for a moment how humble "Mr. President" really is. Keep in mind that after the Revolution, a lot of people just assumed that Washington was going to set up a constitutional monarchy. Suggested forms of address like a "Your Excellency" and more grandiose were out there. Every adult male was entitled to "Mr.", so it's really a pretty unassuming title.
posted by spaltavian at 6:43 PM on November 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nothing would happen. People would just think the person was boorish or tryhard.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:07 PM on November 23, 2012


Calling him something other than "Mr. President," whether it be "Barry" or "Mr. Obama," would not violate Article 88 of the Code of Military Justice. That requires "contemptuous words" against the President and the other designated officials.
posted by megatherium at 7:36 PM on November 23, 2012


Calling him something other than "Mr. President," whether it be "Barry" or "Mr. Obama," would not violate Article 88 of the Code of Military Justice. That requires "contemptuous words" against the President and the other designated officials.

Granted, it's not necessarily within the intent of the article, but "contemptuous" is intentionally broad. Given that "Barry" and (as noted above) "Barack Hussein Obama" have been used as dog-whistles, it wouldn't be impossible for a prosecutor to draw that line. I suspect that a jury of an officer's peers wouldn't buy it, but it's certainly possible under the article. In particular, note: "The truth or falsity of the statements is immaterial." Since you can't use truth as a defense if you're calling someone an asshole, it follows that calling the President by his actual name, if done in a manner judged contemptuous by a military jury, could at least theoretically be punished under Article 88.
posted by Etrigan at 8:40 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Since you can't use truth as a defense if you're calling someone an asshole, it follows that calling the President by his actual name, if done in a manner judged contemptuous by a military jury, could at least theoretically be punished under Article 88."

It would never get that far for all the reasons why our chief executive is not 'His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties'. A president would always be able to ask the prosecutor to go do something, anything, else.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:48 AM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here in Australia it's pretty much accepted you could call the Prime Minister by their first name and no one would bat an eyelid. But it seemed to me anytime anyone referred to the US President it was always "Mr President" and nothing else.

You're talking about relative levels of formality which has no bearing on ideas about formal equality. There are different social groups in the US that value formality in different ways, and as a general rule, yes, it is considered impolite to assume informality with the President. Of course in other languages the way pronouns are deployed would color the level of formality pretty explicitly. As others have pointed out, what seems overly formal to you (always Mr. President), is actually quite egalitarian. There is no "royal we" for the President, no "Highness," no elevation in address at all, except that there is a formal mode of address. In the third person the President is regularly referred to as "Mr. Obama."
posted by OmieWise at 7:52 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older Returning to work after hospit...   |  I want a Christmas tree, but I... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.