President Obama tends not to get out in front of image problems. In fact, his analytical leadership style inclines him toward quite the opposite. His response to the birthers and their latest ringleader Donald Trump is a case in point. It took the president a long time to put to rest the increasing storm of criticism around his birthplace.
Late as the confirmation was, in the release of his official Hawaii long-form birth certificate, it was followed by a flourish. President Obama left Trump's challenge in the dust at the White House Correspondent's Dinner by suggesting -- with exceptional humor -- that Trump could now focus on serious issues, such as whether we faked the moon landing.
Both responses succeeded in removing from discussion what the president described as "silliness" right before he, as Commander-in-chief, oversaw the serious, dangerous work of ending the threat of Osama Bin Laden.
President Obama did not, however, directly address Trump's latest academic insult, which asserts that the young Obama lacked the grades to get into Columbia and Harvard.
It's a question we can apply to our own lives when dealing with personal attacks. When do you turn the other cheek and when do you deliver a comeback a bully will never forget?
First, you have to be able to differentiate along a continuum from offense to insult. The former is often accidental and the latter purposeful. Context makes a considerable difference. Some comments mildly offensive in one context are clearly insulting in another.
The question about the president's birthplace was meant to insult but occurred in the context of politics where credibility challenges are not unusual. As such, it was possible for the president to treat the birther issue as a challenge that could be posed to any president rather than code for "you're not one of us."
By addressing it, especially in a humorous way, the president put the issue to rest without escalating it to benefit the visibility Trump was seeking.
Trump's academic credentials challenge is a different kind of disparagement. It's an insult. It's obviously self-serving, code for "you only got in because you're black," and insults far more people than the president alone. It is over-the-top as insults go even in political contexts.
This is so distasteful an insult, so obviously intended to provoke that turning the other check on this one is, at least now, the best choice. Others are responding to Trump, especially those feeling the sting of an insult meant to negatively reflect by implication on the achievements of all minorities.
That's the difference between a comment that must be addressed to avoid escalating negative effects and an insult that goes so far that it is best to let the author squirm in the hole he dug for himself.
Some offenses take on a life that becomes harmful to one's credibility. That was happening to the president with the birther issue. Others along the continuum from offense to insult require responses when they distract from important issues under discussion or detract from the reputation of the person disparaged.
The president made these distinctions. It serves as a good lesson, a healthy reminder, of what to do and say in the face of public meanness becoming all too common.
Kathleen also blogs at Comebacks at Work.