Update: According to CNN, Pres. Obama apologized directly to the head of the Special Olympics before the airing of the Tonight Show for his comments and expressed concern about his comments disparaging the event, the athletes, and the differently-abled. Apologies matter when they are sincere. Let’s see if his actions will reflect sincerity. END UPDATE
President Obama has been making the media rounds both to condemn the greed of AIG executives and to try to garner support for the stimulus package that many Republicans have turned into an anti-democrat rallying cry. While he has managed to get down the rhetoric about women and the economy, speaking at length early yesterday morning about the impact of the recession on women and women’s uneven representation in the labor force, he has received no similar upgrade in his ability to speak about ability issues.
After what was largely touted as a successful Tonight Show appearance, the President made an “innocuous joke” about his bowling abilities in which he compared his skill to the athletes of the Special Olympcis. While many people make such jokes, it does not make them ok. Instead, they demean both the abilities of differently-abled people in general and the dedication of Special Olympics athletes in the particular. They rely on the recognized and accepted use of difference in order to posit one set characteristics as better than another.
When President Obama made an actual innocuous joke about former First Lady Nancy Reagan, he apologized almost immediately and profusely for the next several days. When called on his Special Olympics comment, a spokesperson for the President issued a statement saying that he celebrates the athletes of the Special Olympics and that he meant to demean himself not them. But how was he demeaned? By comparing himself to differently-abled athletes who train for Olympic events . . .
I don’t want to be the pc police here, but I do think we need to track these “slippages” and hold him accountable. If we had not taken him to task on his gendered comments during the election, he might not be as astute in discussing gendered issues now. His ability and willingness to always reference women’s issues in his post-election public speeches helps but gender inequality on the national radar from the very top. He should be no less astute on other oppression that he has the privilege not to engage.