By Ruth Marcus
The presidency is not a play in two acts. The disaster in the Gulf is not six characters in search of a leader. So why the coverage of President Obama and the oil spill as theater criticism?
Is he angry? Is he enraged? Has he shown it? Is there a vein bulging in his neck?
At the White House press briefing the other day, the debate deteriorated into linguistic parsing of rage versus frustration—and while reporters started it, the White House was foolish enough to play along.
CBS’ Chip Reid: “Frustration and rage are very different emotions, though. I haven’t—have we really seen rage from the president on this? I think most people would say no.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs: “I’ve seen rage from him, Chip. I have…. He has been in a whole bunch of different meetings—clenched jaw—even in the midst of these briefings, saying everything has to be done. I think this was an anecdote shared last week, to ‘plug the damn hole.’ ”
I’m not sure whether it counts as frustration or rage, but I don’t give a damn about the tightness of the president’s jaw. Strategically leaked anecdotes about presidential eruptions are not reassuring—they are insulting to the intelligence of Americans who understand that they are being clumsily spun.
What I care about, and what I suspect most Americans care about, is, in ascending order of importance: How did this happen, and did a failure of government regulation contribute to the disaster? How can we make certain it will never happen again? And, most important, how can we plug the damn hole?
Of course qualities of presidential leadership and temperament matter, never more than in a crisis. Technocratic competence is necessary but not sufficient. Bill Clinton’s ability to feel your pain was a crucial skill; his empathetic response to the Oklahoma City bombing was a signal moment of his presidency. Likewise, George W. Bush rose to the tragic occasion in the days after 9/11. It’s a necessary, if somewhat silly, part of the job to have, as quickly as possible, the Official Presidential Visit to the disaster site, with the chief executive looking appropriately grim.
To critics of the president’s attendance at the White House event for Paul McCartney: What was he supposed to do—huddle in the Oval Office with Energy Secretary (did we mention he has a Nobel Prize in physics?) Steven Chu and sketch out a solution on the back of a napkin embossed with the presidential seal? This is real life, not “Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius.”
Bush would not have been hammered for his New Orleans fly-by if Brownie had been doing a better job on the ground—and if the president and other administration officials had not denied the obvious disaster unfolding on national television. Obama would not be taking so much grief now if any of the efforts to stop the spill had worked. He could be as Spock-like as he wanted if “junk shot” or “top kill” or whatever were doing the trick.
Nothing has worked, but it’s not at all clear to me that this reflects any lack of attention or action on the part of the administration. The failure on the president’s part has been one of Method acting, not, as far as I can tell, of substantive performance. Obama has not adequately inhabited the character of Angry Daddy.
Actually, I thought we liked Obama-as-Spock—logical, controlled, unruffled in the face of the economic meltdown. Whatever happened to all that talk about the president’s first-class temperament? Personally, I prefer my presidents without anger management issues, and I’ll take my emoting at the movies.
The White House, I fear, is taking the wrong lesson from the barrage of criticism. They are rushing Obama back to the Gulf for another visit Friday. To what end? Because the president’s presence will help anyone in the Gulf—or because it will help the president? The real test is in the doing, not the showy symbolism.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
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