The commentators all seem to think that Vice President Joe Biden goofed with the gaffe that President Obama is virile.
Campaigning at New York University April 26, Biden referred to Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy that is captured by the phrase "Speak softly (use diplomacy) but carry a big stick (be sure to have a strong military in case diplomacy fails)."
And then the Vice President looked up from his text and said, very deliberately, “I promise you, the President has a big stick.”
This was not a typical Biden slip of the tongue. It was quite intentional. The Vice President read from a script. He knew exactly what he was saying.
He was assuring the nation that their President is manly. How absurd. Some Americans think that the Commander-in-Chief who ordered the destruction of Osama bin Laden is not virile enough to lead the nation.
It helps explain the irrational perverse and pervasive hatred that some have for the President. There will always be racists and much of the hatred is the result of this—the Birthers, the people who call him a Muslim (as if that were a criticism), the people who call him (a frustrating centrist) a socialist, a Kenyan, a European… But there is something else.
The first black President—like Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball—has to be very careful not to lose his temper, not to appear to be an "angry black."
And President Obama does this very well. He is not angry. He is by nature a calm, even-tempered, reassuring person. There is plenty of reason for him to be angry—given the cynical hypocritical and unprincipled opposition he has faced from congressional Republicans. But he isn’t.
It is this very lack of anger—required by his Jackie Robinson-like historical position and engrained in his natural temperament—that has infuriated some Americans. They think that he is not macho enough. They would fear a black man who appeared strong or angry yet they hate a man who eschews violence, would not carry a gun, and lives in an otherwise all female family.
Jimmy Carter may have suffered from this same prejudice. Most of our recent presidents have had only daughters but they also drank, hunted, philandered, or did other things to show their manliness. Obama, like Carter, does none of this.
The president is a symbol of the country and many Americans want that symbol to be a Texas rancher or a hunter or a military hero. President Obama just does not fit that bill. And so he is hated both by racists and also by chauvinists and by macho men.
Joe Biden cannot do anything to change the president’s skin color but at NYU he did his best to change his image—from mild-mannered professorial collaborator who listens to everyone and seeks a middle path to a man who has a big stick, a man whose manliness defines him, a man who will stick it to you if you get in his way.
Biden’s intentional and illuminating comment reflects Obama's paradox—trying not to look too strong (and thus scary) he appears weak (and thus effeminate) to many of his detractors. No wonder he won’t take on the NRA. No wonder he is not leading the way for gay rights. No wonder he sits adversaries down to a beer. Biden's remark is, in the end, not reassuring at all. It tells us how far we still have to go in gender identity in this country. It is very sad.