May 24th, 2013
04:14 PM ET
7 years ago

To salute or not? Obama's handshake sparks debate

(CNN) – Fans of "The West Wing" remember well the fake President Josiah Bartlett's advice when boarding the presidential helicopter, Marine One: duck.

He might easily have offered this advice as well: salute.

Those who closely watch the president's every step and gesture noticed Friday he didn't salute the Marine standing guard at the foot of the chopper's stairs. After boarding and then shaking hands with the pilots, he quickly exited the chopper, and offered a handshake to the Marine at the steps, then returned for the short ride to Annapolis, Maryland for the United States Naval Academy commencement.

It's become tradition for presidents to salute the military officers he encounters when boarding the official helicopter, a tradition which is widely understood as begun by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

But to not salute is not a break in protocol or a violation of any rule.

Nor was it likely a slight to the military. After all, Obama told the graduates in Annapolis later Friday morning, "Today we salute all the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in these wars, including 18 graduates of this Academy. We honor them all, now and forever."

The tradition is believed to have been started by Reagan. The story goes that he consulted the Marine Corps commandant who "told the president that as commander in chief he could salute anybody he wished," Smithsonian Magazine editor Carey Winfrey wrote in the New York Times.

It's not thought that President Dwight Eisenhower, who attained the rank of five-star general prior to his election and was the first commander-in-chief to ride a helicopter, saluted his pilot, and those before him would not have had the chance.

A hallmark of the U.S. military is that it is overseen by a civilian commander-in-chief. Some suggest the presidential salute to the troops is a sign of respect; others say it is not customary to offer a salute when out of uniform, and a sign of the over-militarization of the presidency.

And while the helicopter's rotor blades aren't spinning when a president approaches, there is still a reason for him to duck. It's to avoid hitting his head on the door opening which is a little low. (That noise you hear in the video is the auxiliary power unit on the helicopter running ahead of engaging the rotors.)

What do you think? Should the president salute the troops? Add your comments in the space below.

Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (1,580 Responses)
  1. B4Real2Me

    Technically the lower ranked is to salute the higher ranked so that being the case no the President shouldn't salute but instead should be saluted since he's the highest ranked. Not to mention as President if he wants to shake hands, fine because shaking hands is another form of respect.

    May 25, 2013 05:34 am at 5:34 am |
  2. Niclas

    The sound of "Aerial Power Unit"... LOL
    How about "Auxiliary Power Unit"?

    May 25, 2013 05:39 am at 5:39 am |
  3. Karloff

    Obama forgets to lead the country, gives it a prostate exam.

    May 25, 2013 05:39 am at 5:39 am |
  4. micol

    The tradition, since Reagan, of the POTUS salute has been somewhat controversial as far as military practice is concerned. While the President is Commander in Chief, the job is outside the normal military chain of command. Everyone in uniform has to salute the office. Returning the salute implies that the person in the office is accepting that salute. In addition to Eisenhower, other former career military officers who became President did not do it, and with Ike, it seemed only to apply to his few chopper rides.
    I guess Reagan started the custom because Presidents are so often filmed getting on and off Marine One, and it made for good visuals, but no one has suggested, for example, that in the Oval or Situation Room, where bracing to attention by military officers is common when POTUS comes into the room, the President should return salutes. That would seem strange.
    If Obama wants to change the custom, there is no reason not to. Shaking hands does, however, seem awkward. The Secretary of Defense gets saluted all the time, and they just ignore it. Or give a little wave.

    May 25, 2013 05:39 am at 5:39 am |
  5. Dan Bessie

    Utter and complete stupidity and nonsense. Just another excuse by those who already hate having a black man as president to come down on him. Give us a BREAK, please!

    May 25, 2013 05:40 am at 5:40 am |
  6. Amha

    The bottomless in this scenario is that weather it is a tradition or a mandate it is another debate.
    In general it is graceful for any president to show any type of respect or SALT to the marine.
    In this case an eye should be or the question should be what is wandering the mind of the president?

    Has it been the national security of the USA? is it congress?
    Has it been his personal life?
    Something must have been going in his mind that he forgo this slight thing to do yet it may have apple ramification in the eyes of many Americans supposedly.

    May 25, 2013 05:40 am at 5:40 am |
  7. Cold War Warrior

    Just my personal opinion; Having served in the USAF under president Reagan, more affectionately known to those of us as "Ronnie-Ray-Gun"; I found the practice to be note worthy due to the fact that the president is showing respect to those of us that sign that long form stating that WE will defend our country and our president with OUR LIVES! So in my humble opinion a return-salute to a member of the armed forces is absolutely necessary because it shows respect for the troops and is part of the bigger picture called MORALE..! Now for the rest of you folks that have no military experience I invite you to look back in history and find out WHY there even is a protocol for saluting! Educate yourself and you will have your answer to why it is done. I am not saying that the POTUS has to salute, but none the less it is what it is and that is that BOTH are public servants first and foremost. Have a nice day!

    May 25, 2013 05:50 am at 5:50 am |
  8. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Impeachment hearings perhaps? I can assure you that our troops around the world appreciated it when the President acknowledged them at the Democratic Convention and thanked them for their service and sacrifice, unlike his opponent who did NOT mention our troops at the Republican Convention. And I believe our troops are glad to be home from Iraq while others appreciate the drawn down from Afghanistan so they can rejoin their love ones and move forward with their lives. And I'm sure our troops appreciate the funding the President has appropriated for them and their families and the job initiative his administration has put in place so that companies across the country hire them when they return home from the war front.

    May 25, 2013 05:52 am at 5:52 am |
  9. chipper

    Good thing the Marine was wearing gloves. Bet POTUS doesn't wash his hands.

    May 25, 2013 05:54 am at 5:54 am |
  10. Oracularman


    May 25, 2013 05:59 am at 5:59 am |
  11. Pontihog

    "That noise you hear in the video is the aerial power unit on the helicopter running ahead of engaging the rotors"

    The correct term is an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU).

    May 25, 2013 06:01 am at 6:01 am |
  12. Artemesia

    The whole thing is macho military theater. Notice the two presidents who loved to dress up in costumes and salute and generally prance about as 'COMMANDER in Chief' were both people who managed to avoid any exposure to actual combat.

    The President is Commander in Chief of the military but as Dwight Eisenhower recognized IS a CIVILIAN. That is the whole point - our military is controlled by civilians. The saluting is innocuous enough but probably inappropriate.

    I for one am tired of constantly hearing about the president as 'OUR Commander in Chief' and the obsequious militarization of the presidency. He is not MY Commander in Chief; he is my President - a civilian post. He is the C OC of the military - he is THEIR Commander in Chief.

    Good for Obama and I hope his successor keeps it up - but if he is a Republican, you can be assured he will be 1. a coward and 2. someone who loves prancing around saluting as if he had personally stormed the beaches of Normandy.

    May 25, 2013 06:03 am at 6:03 am |
  13. J.C. Holley

    I think the President should salute PROPERLY (at the brow and brought out from the body, not drawn down) , as he is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. This shows respect for the people in the service who protect him and for the office he holds in the service.

    May 25, 2013 06:04 am at 6:04 am |
  14. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Republican and former head of the CIA David Petreaus slept in bed with two women while our consulate was being attacked in Benghazi.There was never a female service member he didn't like saluting.

    May 25, 2013 06:04 am at 6:04 am |
  15. mkp1151

    Military tradition holds that a senior officer must return the salute of a person of lower rank. Therefore, even though he is a civilian, President Obama, as Commander-in-Chief, should have rendered a salute.

    May 25, 2013 06:07 am at 6:07 am |
  16. SillyT

    what is the big deal? we all know that he has no more concept of protocol than he does of working for a living. inept, corrupt, etc. just like every other corporate-owned career parasite.

    May 25, 2013 06:10 am at 6:10 am |
  17. reddog

    I was taught that "when in doubt...salute". At least the President didn't offer to share a "high five" with the Marine.

    May 25, 2013 06:16 am at 6:16 am |
  18. jim

    I am an active duty Army retiree. I say: Let the president do what he wants. He is the commander-in-chief. He should not be guided by the loud mouths.

    I personally, return a salute from uniformed SM when entering an mil installation.

    May 25, 2013 06:24 am at 6:24 am |
  19. Anonymous

    That soldier isnt an officer....

    May 25, 2013 06:30 am at 6:30 am |
  20. alan bromberg

    As COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF the President can do as he pleases. Personally I feel that a handshake is more personal than a salute and shows more respect.

    May 25, 2013 06:31 am at 6:31 am |
  21. Z_2k

    The Pres , although CInC of Military, is still a civilian. And the Marine on the ground (in this video) is Enlisted, not an Officer. A salute is not necessary and is even incorrect protocol, a handshake is better. Even in the military, an Officer does not salute an enlisted person first...the enlisted person first salutes the Officer, and the Officer salutes back .So proper protocol whould be that the Marine guard would first salute Obama if to acknowledge Obama being Commander in Chief, and Obama would than salute back.

    May 25, 2013 06:41 am at 6:41 am |
  22. John T.

    There has been a lot of debate about his poor saluting gestures, mostly from the Republican's trying to find any means they can to make the President look bad. I guess Mr. Obama has heard all the complaints and now his going to make the Republicans look bad (again) by shacking the hand of the Marine rather than saluting.

    May 25, 2013 06:41 am at 6:41 am |
  23. Tom Wukitsch

    Why are you all so intent on finding presidential controversy? As a former military member and American diplomat, i can tell you that a presidential handshake is worth much more than a rote salute.

    May 25, 2013 06:44 am at 6:44 am |
  24. Z_2k

    Obama should have saluted back, and he probably apologized to the enlisted Marine for not doing so.

    May 25, 2013 06:45 am at 6:45 am |
  25. A Realist

    I could care less if a president salutes or not. Myself, I wouldn't.

    Saluting is so dated.

    May 25, 2013 06:46 am at 6:46 am |
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