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Posted at 11:59 AM ET, 05/24/2011

President Obama, Ireland and the politics of drinking


President Obama likes beer, and he wants everyone to know it.

In front of the cameras on Monday, Obama downed a Guinness in an Irish pub in Moneygall, his ancestral home. Then the president opened a speech in front of a crowd of tens of thousands in Dublin by explaining that he felt at home in the land of his great-great-great grandfather — and especially after his pint.

Emphasizing America’s — and the president’s own — relationship with Ireland, National Journal notes, might help Obama win the votes of the many Americans who proudly claim Irish heritage. And what brings people closer than common blood and common drink? The former makes you relations. The latter makes you friends. Obama’s just another Guinness-drinking son of Erin whose family escaped the potato famine. Not to mention a devoted practitioner of the politics of alcohol.


(AP)
Drinking has a long history in American politics. William Henry Harrison won the presidency in 1840 by claiming that he was a cider-guzzling frontiersman, unlike Martin van Buren, his champagne-sipping opponent.

Obama began his national political career when President Bush held office — a man whose chief appeal in his 2000 election campaign seemed to be that voters would rather have a beer with him. But by the time he was running for president, Bush had been dry for years. Obama, much more than his predecessor, has used — and been abused by — the politics of drinking.

One of Obama's most frequent 2008 campaign-trail anecdotes involved him agreeing to visit a small, difficult-to-find town in South Carolina, but only after a “beer” or a “glass of wine” (what he was drinking changed according to the crowd hearing the story) impaired his judgment.

The politics of alcohol worked both ways in 2008. When Hillary Clinton took shots of whiskey in an Indiana bar during the Democratic primaries, she looked like the woman of the white working class. Obama, meanwhile, couldn't bowl above a 37 , or win West Virginia.

After the election, when the president involved himself in a racially-charged row over the arrest of a black Harvard professor, Obama convened a “Beer Summit” at which he smoothed over sore feelings. They weren’t just having a rational discussion sorting out their differences. They were having a friendly one.

These images are unexpected, and that gives them power. Even for those who don’t have their fingers on the nuclear button, alcohol, particularly beer, sucks away formality and promotes trust, in part because it demonstrates a willingness to be vulnerable among one’s company. For a president, merely sipping a pint collapses the arrogance and pretensions of his high office; the man’s not quite so perfect — he’s approachable.

The symbolism of suds is yet more important for this president. Bush never needed to drink to seem like the kind of guy you’d like to sit next to on a bar stool. Obama’s critics, on the other hand, constantly describe him as professorial and arrogant, and they accuse his policy of being high-handed and overly complex. Against that, there is the simple imagery of he and Michelle toasting a room full of Irish and gulping down their brews, or the president knocking one back at a basketball game . Perhaps Obama isn’t out to force Americans to consume nothing but algae and rain water with 1,500-page bills that he doesn’t let anyone read. Even if you don’t understand everything Obama’s doing and saying, he’s not so different.

It’s a common touch a monarch might never understand, as Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated in her own visit to Ireland last week. The Queen declined to drink a glass of Guinness that master brewer Fergal Murray poured her at Dublins Guinness Storehouse. On a tour of reconciliation, it was an awkward moment emphasizing the distance between the feudal British monarchy, which deemed beer not regal enough for consumption at the royal wedding reception last month, and its former subjects. The Queen wasn’t in Ireland to drink, of course, but just imagine the reaction if she had.

Judging by the cheers Obama got in Dublin, it would have been wild.

UPDATE, 12:48 p.m.: Post slightly edited for clarity.

By  |  11:59 AM ET, 05/24/2011

 
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