President Obama has been venturing outside the White House lately on a series of impromptu—or at least impromptu-seeming—field trips to commune with average Americans. The White House and the press have taken to referring to the excursions in code: "The bear is loose."
And where does a presidential bear find ordinary Americans? Naturally, they tend to appear at places that specialize in things like beer and fast food.
"In recent weeks Obama strolled to Starbucks for tea, ate pizza with small business owners and others in Denver, plunked down more than $300 for barbecue in Austin, sipped a beer while shooting pool during a big night out with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and brought working parents to Chipotle," reported Washington Post political blogger Katie Zezima last week. She also noted Obama had recently shared burgers with several of his fellow red-meat loving Americans.
Nevermind what the president's wife might have to say about how burgers, beer, and pizza mesh with her zeal for a kale-powered America.
Nevermind what the president's wife might have to say about how the particulars of this diet mesh with her zeal for a kale-powered America. To Mrs. Obama, and perhaps to you, the president's run of dining out on burgers, pizza, and beer might seem like a statement about the subpar American condition.
But in fact it's just the opposite. It's just the latest example of how Americans have historically gathered in meaningful ways over food and drink. In a 2012 article in the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, "Tavern Talk & the Origins of the Assembly Clause," I argued that we owe our First Amendment freedom of assembly to the gatherings that took place in colonial American taverns before, during, and after the American Revolution. The Assembly Clause guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."
Of course, colonial taverns were places to drink alcohol. Sometimes, that was the only thing happening.
Revolutionary War-era taverns served as the period's most essential, vital, and important space for exercising the freedom of assembly. Of course, colonial taverns were places to drink alcohol. Sometimes, that was the only thing happening. But they also served as vital centers where colonists of all sorts—from everyday Americans to the Founding Fathers—gathered to read printed tracts, speak with one another on important issues of the day, debate the news, organize boycotts, draft treatises and demands, plot the expulsion of their British overlords, and establish a new nation. All over pints and punch and grog.
No other space but the tavern—not the public square, not church pews, and not the home—afforded Americans the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of colonial life and, often, with travelers bringing news and tales from other colonies and from abroad. This discourse represented, I wrote, "a thoroughly constitutional mishmash of both mundane and vital discourse between and among Americans."
Are Obama's outings to bars and restaurants around the country evidence of this discourse?
A cynic would say these staged meetings are little more than a way for the president to highlight his own agenda.
Pundits have suggested they are part of POTUS's plan to connect—or "reconnect," as the need may be—with voters. Other reports have painted the visits as "carefully orchestrated" photo ops with people who've been "rounded up" for the occasion. Another notes they're "carefully scripted for maximum photo and video opportunities."
Indeed, several of the people the president has dined with are vetted voters who've written to him recently about issues that concern them—from the minimum wage to student loans. A cynic would say these staged meetings are little more than a way for the president to highlight his own agenda. And the White House certainly uses the president's bewr-and-burger outings as messaging opportunities.
But maybe there's more to it. It's easy to look at this from the president's perspective—a man in power identifying with the common man, and doing so in a public fashion that magnifies the act and his own message. Seen in that light, Obama's not just having a beer with a regular American. He's having a beer with every American. (Which is a fine achievement, considering that he almost didn't pass that presidential litmus test back in 2008.) And he's doing it to score political points at a time when he could most use them.
That may all be true. But it's more interesting to me—in light of this country's history of assembling to discuss issues over food and drink—to look at these burger-and-beer get-togethers from the regular American's perspective. Seen in that light, it's the tavern that brought together Americans of all social ranks, and it's that sort of establishment that's still a unique space—the only physical space—in which such interactions can continue to take place.
Obama may be using the places where we consume fast food and beer for his own purposes, but that doesn't change the fact that Americans from all walks of life still gather in those same places when the President and the cameras that follow him are nowhere to be seen. Americans of all reputes—from great to ill to none whatsoever—still meet in these spaces to hash out their problems and debate the news over drinks.
Obama's outings do no injustice to that history. Sure, the photo ops all show a president. But they also picture regular Americans in their element. If you think otherwise, then I suggest we grab a beer and talk it through.