It’s been five years since then-President Barack Obama gave a news conference at the White House and announced “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat ISIS in Syria. It was a serious and consequential development, which, Obama added, he hoped to remedy shortly by meeting with his military and national security advisers.
Yet, when the news conference ended, the general talk of the day was not about a lack of strategy in the fight against a terror group in the Middle East.
Instead, it was about taupe, the color of the suit Obama was wearing that day.
Five years in Washington can feel like a lifetime ago, and the way Obama’s suit was covered then, versus where something as trivial would fall in today’s news cycle, is for many an example of just how much the times have changed.
The crux of the issue was the shock of seeing Obama stepping out on his normal, traditional blue or gray suits that it caused such a divisive disturbance in America’s normal sartorial acceptance of the President’s choices. New York Rep. Peter King zeroed in on it during a CNN appearance at the time, saying it made the country look less serious about taking on ISIS.
“(Obama) looked like he was on his way to a party at the Hamptons,” King had said.
Headlines abounded – “Yes we Tan!” and “The audacity of taupe” – Fox News’ Lou Dobbs went so far as to call it “un-presidential” and tried to surmise Obama was sending some sort of hidden message, possibly to our enemies, via the suit color.
In 2014, serious policy – the Syrian conflict featuring ISIS – was usurped by the absurdity of a suit’s color. In 2019, it sometimes feels like the absurd can be the serious policy.
This week alone, it’s been reported President Donald Trump has discussed nuking hurricanes, waffled on Chinese trade deals, implied the first lady of the United States had gotten to know the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and wished a happy birthday to the man who runs World Wrestling Entertainment.
This is just a sampling.
Perhaps, then, a more ebullient White House press corps was easily distracted from topics than they would be today – a President announcing he had no definitive strategy as he simultaneously sent more US troops abroad. But five years ago, Washington seemed more inclined to trade jabs about the ridiculousness of Obama’s fashion choices than to double-down on the legitimate content of the news conference. Not that there weren’t any stories or focus on the ISIS crisis – there were. But the larger takeaway from the day, in terms of the country’s popular vernacular, was that Obama should/should not have worn tan.
So robust was the talk of the suit it forced then-press secretary Josh Earnest to tell reporters the following day that Obama still “feels pretty good about his decision” to wear it.
“The President stands squarely behind the decision he made yesterday to wear his summer suit at yesterday’s news conference,” said Earnest, a frequent presence at the briefing room podium, which has been left abandoned by a press secretary now for going on 170 days.
The month before Obama’s news conference, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was arrested in Iran on espionage charges and eventually convicted in an Iranian trial. On Wednesday, the tan suit’s fifth anniversary, he offered the most insightful take – and a note of perspective.
“I was in prison when this happened. Today is literally the first time I’m hearing of it … if this was actually a thing to be covered at the time – and now – we are indeed the most privileged – and perhaps pettiest – nation ever,” he tweeted.