What the bow means

The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic, and they would not be if they weren’t playing off a growing perception. If the pictures had been accompanied by headlines from Asia saying “Tough Talks Yield Big Progress” or “Obama Shows Muscle in China,” the bowing pictures might be understood this way: “He Stoops to Conquer: Canny Obama shows elaborate deference while he subtly, toughly, quietly advances his nation’s interests.”

But that’s not how the pictures were received or will be remembered.

It is true that Mr. Obama often seems not to have a firm grasp of—or respect for—protocol, of what has been done before and why, and of what divergence from the traditional might imply. And it is true that his political timing was unfortunate. When a great nation is feeling confident and strong, a surprising presidential bow might seem gracious. When it is feeling anxious, a bow will seem obsequious.

The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic not for those reasons, however, but because they express a growing political perception, and that is that there is something amateurish about this presidency, something too ad hoc and highly personalized about it, something . . . incompetent, at least in its first year.