How do you handle a heckler? Well, it depends.

ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 27: First lady Michelle Obama (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greet people while visiting section 60 at Arlington Cemetery, May 27, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President and Michelle Obama handled their hecklers very differently. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In the wake of Tuesday's night's heckling incident with the first lady -- when Michelle Obama threatened to leave if the activist didn't stop speaking -- it's worth noting that she and her husband react differently to harassment depending on the circumstances.

In this most recent case, the first lady took a hard line when Ellen Sturtz, a lesbian activist, interrupted her remarks during a Democratic Party fundraiser in a private residence in Northwest Washington to demand that President Obama sign an anti-discrimination executive order.

“One of the things that I don’t do well is this,” she said to applause from most of the crowd, according to a White House transcript, as she faced Sturtz. “Do you understand?”

A pool report from a reporter quoted Obama as saying: “Listen to me or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

The president, by contrast, allowed a protester to interrupt him several times during his May 23 counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University, where anti-war activist Medea Benjamin shouted out comments repeatedly in the midst of his remarks.

Consider this exchange over whether to close the federal prison in Guantanamo Bay:

BENJAMIN:  Excuse me, President Obama --

THE PRESIDENT:  So -- let me finish, ma'am.  So today, once again --

BENJAMIN: There are 102 people on a hunger strike. These are desperate people.

THE PRESIDENT:  I'm about to address it, ma'am, but you've got to let me speak. I'm about to address it.

BENJAMIN:  You're our commander in chief --

THE PRESIDENT:  Let me address it.

BENJAMIN:  -- you [c]an close Guantanamo Bay.

THE PRESIDENT:  Why don’t you let me address it, ma'am?

BENJAMIN: There’s still prisoners --

THE PRESIDENT:  Why don’t you sit down and I will tell you exactly what I'm going to do.

BENJAMIN:  That includes 57 Yemenis.

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you, ma'am.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Ma'am, thank you. You should let me finish my sentence.

Benjamin went on to interrupt Obama another four times, after which point he used the heated exchange as a vehicle to explore the idea that Americans remain divided over how best to confront the terrorist threat facing the nation.

"The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to," Obama said, prompting applause. "Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong."

Does that mean the president is soft on protesters, especially ones with a left-leaning ideology? Not quite. Consider how he reacted in 2010 when about a half-dozen GetEqual hecklers riled Obama by repeatedly interrupting a speech he was delivering at a Los Angeles fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

“Don’t know exactly why you’ve got to holler, because we already hear you, all right?” Obama told them, trying to quiet the shouts from the crowd. CNN was airing the remarks live. When a woman could be heard yelling, “It’s time for equality for all Americans," Obama replied in a sarcastic tone, “I’m sorry, do you want to come up here?”

According to my colleague Peter Wallsten, the president later complained to one of his senior aides, Jim Messina, when leaving the event in his limousine. He didn’t see why these activists were angry with him when he was so clearly supportive of their cause, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Other times, the president treats hecklers with indifference. In October 2011, two students from Washington University in St. Louis who opposed the Keystone XL pipeline raised enough money to attend a $250-a-person Obama fundraiser there, during which they unfurled signs written on their clothes and cried out during his remarks, “Please stop the pipeline!” Obama did not directly respond to them, though he commented later in his talk, “We’ve got a couple people here concerned about the environment.”

Press secretary Jay Carney said he did not ask President Obama for his opinion on how Michelle Obama handled her encounter with the heckler last night. But Carney said, “It’s my personal opinion that she handled it brilliantly.”

In other words: if you're looking for an official White House policy on heckling, you're not going to find one.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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