Call me hyper-critical, but when Barack Obama was elected to the presidency, I admit to being pleased that we once again had a leader who spoke in complete sentences with proper syntax, grammar, and all the bells and whistles of a person with a secondary education. I also imagined less hot air spewing from those specialists of naysaying and more of that post-election kumbaya-ing.
I was so wrong. Simply put, no American president can do anything right. We might as well elect a bumbling fool rather than a Harvard-educated, constitutional scholar. At least, our expectations would be suitably low.
For example, in the BP crisis, Americans cannot fathom why President Obama doesn’t pull out his magic key to stop the oil flowing into the Gulf. How could he have let it happen? Why can’t he stop it? Why doesn’t he declare war and nuke those snippy redcoats once and for all? People seem to be divided as to whether he should let BP continue efforts to stop the flow of oil instead of having some unidentified crew of federal roughnecks do the job, despite the fact that the government doesn’t explore for oil and gas, and therefore, doesn’t employ such folks. Outsource the job to Exxon?
The consensus, however, seems to boil down to this: he needs to emote more and learn to give better speeches. In other words, he needs to communicate that “he feels the pain.” Not that he should say those words, since President Clinton has a de facto copyright on that handy gem. Nor can he grab a bullhorn and yell out to the Gulf coast residents, “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!” Aside from them actually hearing him, that’s President Bush’s signature move. President Obama, however, took a cue from Bush’s signature absence during Katrina and actually visited the Gulf area, not just once, but several times. But those visits didn’t lead to any significant increase on the national emote-a-meter.
David Remnick, editor-in-chief of the New Yorker magazine characterized the situation well: the obsession of the press has been drama criticism as if they are on the fifth row watching a play and analyzing the President’s emotions. So it was after his speech on Tuesday night, and the critics spoke: thumbs down. Robert Reich, former Clinton Labor Secretary, complained that the speech was “vapid.” Rachel Maddow of MSNBC said “it didn’t do anything for her,” so she rewrote the speech and aired a vigorous performance as “fake Obama.” According to opinion analytics company Crimson Hexagon, of the almost 90,000 Facebook/Twitter users who commented on the speech, 11% thought that Obama’s public speaking skills were lacking: i.e. he used too many hand gestures, he looked like he was reading from a tele-prompter. Gail Collins of the NY Times called the speech a “disappointment” because she said we wanted him to declare war on the oil companies and all he did was talk about a new energy policy.
The day after the speech, it got really interesting. The President met with BP executives, which resulted in a BP offer of $20 billion to help victims of the disaster. (Let’s not declare war until that money has been deposited.) But even getting $20 billion from BP the easy way (by agreement rather than warfare or litigation) wasn’t good enough for the American public. First, after the BP Chairman’s apology to Americans, wherein he said that BP cared for the “small people” – everyone had to have a hissy fit about the word “small” even when they knew that his native language was Swedish and that he was simply contrasting a big company to an individual or family business. He obviously didn’t intend to insult anyone. And, by the way, Mr. Chairman, if you want to give me a few billion dollars, you may refer to me as “fat” instead of “voluptuous.” I’ll know what you really mean.
(As to the next day’s lambast by a Texas congressman of President Obama for blackmailing a corporation, I’ll defer to others to explain or send you to google. It’s beyond this Texan’s pain threshold to describe.)
But later in the week, singer/songwriter Carole King sounded a hopeful note against negativity. While discussing her reunion tour with James Taylor on Morning Joe, the oil spill comes up in the conversation and she says that she thinks the President is doing great and that he’s not a magician. She asks us to consider the following analogy: “I’m on stage with James Taylor . . . and what if there were people in the audience who were yelling out, “YOU SUCK!!!” How functional do you think we would be? That’s what people are doing to the President!”
Frankly, I think Americans are locked into this “YOU SUCK” approach to free speech and government criticism. I am reminded of an op-ed piece that Russell Baker, NY Times satirical columnist, wrote in 1994 during the Clinton administration, about the prospect of being president. Here’s an excerpt:
Many have pleaded with me not to seek the Presidency in 1996, but I must. Call it selfish, but I yearn for the utter humiliation that only the Presidency can bestow. . . . I want to be scolded by columnists and editorial writers for not possessing sagacity and cunning as profound as theirs. . . . I want to watch telegenic journalists tell the entire country what needs to be done to perfect society and belittle me for not doing it. . . . I want to be held in contempt by shrewd veterans of Washington politics, and not only that: I want to be denounced by them as a rustic dolt so innocent of Washington’s magnificent iniquities that I am unfit to lead the country. . . .
I guess I just need to accept the fact that we Americans like our presidents boiled, broiled, barbequed, and basted often. And our presidents need to accept the fact that no matter what they do, citizens of this fair country will sit in the audience and yell, “YOU SUCK!”