May 24th, 2013
04:14 PM ET
8 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.

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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. Serge Crespy

    A marine wearing gloves shaking the President's bare hand?.... Is a 'high-five' salute for the marine guard by the President being considered?....... "Traditional" is sooo Republican!

    May 25, 2013 08:36 am at 8:36 am |
  2. explainist

    a salute is a military form of greeting. an enlisted man CAN salute another enlisted man; he MUST salute an officer. an officer CAN salute an enlisted man; he MUST salute a higher ranking officer.

    the salute is a show of respect. you do not have to feel respect but you must display respect to a superior officer.

    a salute from a person who was never in the military means nothing. Obama was never in the military. A salute from Obama or Clinton would be an empty gesture.

    the handshake was the better choice. having a flunky hand the soldier a sanitary hand wipe after would probably reflect the opinion of the soldier and his unit.

    May 25, 2013 08:38 am at 8:38 am |
  3. Winning

    We dont have to make Obama into a president, last I checked he already won... twice. It must be exhausting to be such sore losers.

    May 25, 2013 08:38 am at 8:38 am |
  4. Baldiggle

    It is true that different Services have slightly different traditions on the salute. The Prez is CIC of all of them. I agree with Mike. however, Both Bushes and Reagan served in the Military as Commissioned Officers. Reagan, (US Army) Who started all this did not remember that soldiers do not salute when not in uniform. This is entirely understandable, since his Army job was to stay in Hollywood and narrate training films. I well remember hearing the familiar voice from 'Death Valley Days' explain the dangers of contacting a Venereal Disease as I watched these films in Korea in the 1960's.

    May 25, 2013 08:39 am at 8:39 am |
  5. Ed

    The president is commander-in-chief. Therefore, the military are required to salute him and he should return the salute as a signl of his respect for their service. This serves to remind everyone that the military is subservient to the civilian. If he wants to shake hands after that, it's his choice.

    May 25, 2013 08:40 am at 8:40 am |
  6. ljhays

    Seems to me that shaking hands with this marine shows more respect than a salute. There could well be a back story that we're not aware of (facts are so boring, after all, if they don't start an argument)–maybe his wife just had a baby or he received a commendation. And why is this "news" anyway?

    May 25, 2013 08:41 am at 8:41 am |
  7. mommytwice

    I think a hand shake is more personal, warmer, more heart felt. I also think the Right will lose their collective minds over it, as they do over every single thing this man does. It's certainly easier than , say, doing their jobs.

    May 25, 2013 08:41 am at 8:41 am |
  8. nancy hanks

    Back in the day, one only saluted when wearing a cover (hat). That would make the President's actions appropriate.

    May 25, 2013 08:42 am at 8:42 am |
  9. John

    The president is not saluting those Marines, they are saluting the President as Commander-in-Chief of the US Military. He is merely returning their salute. Returning a salute is a show of respect to those of lesser grade than you.

    May 25, 2013 08:42 am at 8:42 am |
  10. big dawg

    seriously?! We have nothing more important to be concerned with than whether or not President Obama salutes his military guard? That marine now holds a particular distinction of having shook hands and conversed with the president. Whereas so many others only see him and get a somewhat routine salute. It truly boggles the mind to witness what is deemed "newsworthy" these days. I do believe it is a tremendous show of respect to salute his forces but, not a show of disrespect if he does not. He is the commander of the armed forces. He is also a civilian. Its his choice. Come on guys! We should and do have more relevant concerns!

    May 25, 2013 08:43 am at 8:43 am |
  11. John P.

    What he did is 100% acceptable and the norm. I am active duty military (24 years enlisted an commissioned service) there are times when walking that someone will salute me and I might miss it (they pass prior to my returning the salute) I will try to turn and catch up to them and give a hand shake as and a quick apology. I am surprised this made the news.

    May 25, 2013 08:44 am at 8:44 am |
  12. Dave Hawkins

    A salute is traditionally a greeting between warriors. The office of the President is the office of the Commander in Chief, by definition a civilian. It just seems wrong that this President presumes the privilege of rendering the hand salute as if he were playing army....

    May 25, 2013 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  13. av green

    definitely salute

    May 25, 2013 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  14. Hammerdown

    He is Commander In Chief.
    They should be saluting him.

    May 25, 2013 08:48 am at 8:48 am |
  15. teremist

    IF he respected the troops, he would salute as the acting CIC. This is the man that uses US Marines as his personal butlers to hold his umbrellas. He has no respect.

    May 25, 2013 08:48 am at 8:48 am |
  16. teerandaz

    Obama is not a soldier, and his warm gesture is simply indicative of an older man's affection for the smartly uniformed man representing the nation's best. I am hard-pressed to believe that Obama "forgot" to salute the young man. It is a silly interpretation.

    May 25, 2013 08:49 am at 8:49 am |
  17. Former Military Officer in Virginia

    Hat or no hat, a salute is a sign of respect; a handshake is a greeting. This president is convinced that he's the smartest person in any room, hence he disregards traditions, protocols, rules and even statutes...they simply do not apply to him.

    But here's a thought: rather than covering such superficial subjects as presidential salutes, why doesn't CNN spend some air time focusing on Obama's arrogant abuses of power: Benghazi deceptions, DOJ's seizing of reporters' private communications and Treasury's siccing the IRS on political opponents!!

    May 25, 2013 08:49 am at 8:49 am |
  18. Dave

    Really? With all the things that need discussion in this country a salute, given or not, isn't one of them.

    May 25, 2013 08:53 am at 8:53 am |
  19. sally hodges

    If you have to concern yourself with whether the President of the United States of America should or should not salute/shake hands/duck/, then you have too much time your hands and need to get a life!

    May 25, 2013 08:56 am at 8:56 am |
  20. barbara

    In my opinion, a salute would be an appropriate acknowledgement of the military's sacrifice for the good of our country.

    May 25, 2013 08:56 am at 8:56 am |
  21. lmori

    It may not be a breach of protocol, but it is significant to note that Reagan started the trend and Obama is ending it.

    May 25, 2013 08:58 am at 8:58 am |
  22. Sarah

    He should salute the troops to show the respect he has for them.

    May 25, 2013 08:58 am at 8:58 am |
  23. Ed

    There could be a hundred reasons Obama chose to shake hands. Maybe the corporal was new and Obama was being welcoming, or maybe he was being reassigned and Obama just wanted to say goodbye. Maybe the corporal looked nervous and Obama wanted to show him he puts his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. Heck, maybe he was just being friendly. Whatever the case, Obama should have stayed onboard because exiting the aircraft to salute only drew attention.

    Personally, I don't think civilians should be saluting in the first place. I guess that's just the veteran in me.

    There's plenty of stuff to ding Obama on (his seeming refusal to send Eric Holder packing, for one) but this is a sideshow, and a boring one at that.

    May 25, 2013 09:01 am at 9:01 am |
  24. Jennifer

    If you were in the military & now hold office, then you should salute those in the guard & low rank out of respect for the uniform, as for a civilian in high office I think a hand shake is much more symbolic to what the role of the civilian & military leadership in our nation.

    May 25, 2013 09:01 am at 9:01 am |
  25. Gordon

    Does he need to salute, no, should he, yes. It's a sign of respect from the Commander in Chief.

    May 25, 2013 09:02 am at 9:02 am |
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