The Blog

Obama and the Oil Spill: Can We Tolerate a President Who Refuses to Make Us Feel Better?

Americans may say they want straight-talking politicians, but we also demand the kind of political theater that makes us feel better. It's not enough to get the job done; you've also got to look like you're getting the job done.
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I remember back when not-yet-President Obama first tried to strike a blow against the empty imagery that increasingly fills so much of our political life.

This was back when he was running for the job, and declined to put his hand over his heart once when the national anthem was playing and sometimes didn't wear flag pins on his suitjacket lapels. His explanation made sense -- he hated the empty posturing of folks who hid behind such symbols while wrecking the country.

But he soon learned, courtesy of damaging jibes from political enemies that continue today; Americans may say they want straight-talking politicians, but we also demand the kind of political theater that makes us feel better. It's not enough to get the job done; you've also got to look like you're getting the job done. And when the job's not even getting done, then you at least better look like you're trying hard.

Which is where we are with the administration's response to the oil spill. Former Clinton aide James Carville loses his marbles every night on CNN, creating his own bit of TV theater while channeling the public's real feeling on this matter. Obama's cool logic -- jumping up and down won't make technology that's not working work any better -- ignores the simple truth of Carville's demands. Act like you're doing something, he bellows, so we can believe in you again.

So the president gets pulled into playing that game a little bit by the Today show, and gives pundits more red meat to cynically decry a step toward the kind of political theater they had been demanding he display for weeks.

"I don't sit around talking to people like this is a college seminar," Obama said to anchor Matt Lauer after the host asked about whether this was time for the president to "kick some butt." "We talk to these folks because the potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick."

Today show executive producer Jim Bell backed the president's comment as a spontaneous reaction. "It was as candid a President Obama as we've ever seen and it was very compelling," said Bell, who decided to air the profanity unbleeped after the NBC Nightly News aired an unmasked version of the line in Monday's program."Initially, we had a graphic that had (the word) on it, and we decided not to use that. But there was sense that once the horse was out of the barn -- even though it backed out -- we felt comfortable about airing it."

The quote rocketed across the world Tuesday morning, generating more than 25,000 results in Google News and sparking debates on all the cable channels. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg saw a line crossed; a growing acceptance of shocking language in more public and formal settings. ""These are words we use precisely because they are dirty or there is some restriction," said Nunberg, an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a commentator for National Public Radio's Fresh Air program. ....This language is a sign of authenticity."

But I saw a president who seemed angriest when talking about the public's disappointment in his reactions. Elected as a calm voice of reason who was the polar opposite of predecessor George W. Bush's seat-of-the-pants emotionalism, Obama now seemed almost irritated that so many expected him to echo the public's dismay in pointed outbursts.

That moment surfaced again when Lauer asked whether Obama had met with BP CEO Tony Hayward. When the president admitted he hadn't -- because, frankly, he figured the guy was just going to shine him on and both of them had better things to do in this crisis -- that answer wasn't good enough for Lauer or the president's critics.

We want to see you meeting with him, even if it probably won't lead to anything, Lauer basically said. Because not meeting with him just feels wrong.

"Part of the president's job is channeling the electorate's emotion sometimes," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, who nevertheless pronounced the attention over the president's comments as "silly. "We already knew he wasn't Bill Clinton ...feeling our pain wasn't his thing. Now, apparently, we want somebody to feel our pain, or at least express it."

Though lots of angry people have already decided what they think, the fact is, it will take a load of investigations to figure out whether the government could have resolved this oil leak any sooner. It is obvious now that empty gestures won't make the relief wells appear any sooner or collect the spilled crude any faster.

And perhaps this frustrating, horrifying display is enough to make Americans ask ourselves: At a time when everyone says they are tired of politicians lies and empty gestures, can we tolerate a president who takes us at our word?

Find answers to these questions and more at my own blog, The Feed, by clicking here.