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Obama and emotional correctness

When it comes to assessing President Obama’s response to the Gulf oil spill, many pundits are asking whether the president is being sufficiently emotional in his response.

 In the New York Times, Charles M. Blow writes: “There are many things at which the president is extraordinarily gifted. Emoting isn’t one of them.” Blow says that Obama came up short in empathy during his press conference, “until he invoked his daughter and saved himself. Malia for the win!” Blow was referring to Obama’s mention that Malia asked him, while shaving in the morning, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”

Likewise, Maureen Dowd, also in the Times, finds Obama’s emotional response lacking: “Once more, he has willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.” Dowd suggest that Obama hire Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton: “Bill would certainly know how to gush at a gusher gone haywire. Let him resume a cameo role as Feeler in Chief. The post is open. “

The focus on an emotionally correct response is based on a degraded notion of politics. It is a demand for a certain therapeutic presentation style, rather than focusing on what a political leader actually does. In the past, politicians were criticized for covering up for a lack of activity, or taking the wrong action, with emotions that were meant to deceive or conceal. Now our pundits demand that the president put on a show.

Indeed, it’s not just the Gulf oil spill that has brought about this demand for emotional correctness. As Dowd reminds us, pundits like her have been pushing this theme since the beginning of his administration: “In the campaign, Obama’s fight flagged to the point that his donors openly upbraided him. In the Oval, he waited too long to express outrage and offer leadership on A.I.G., the banks, the bonuses, the job loss and mortgage fears, the Christmas underwear bomber, the death panel scare tactics, the ugly name-calling of Tea Party protesters.”

Not only is emotional correctness leading to a dumbed-down political discourse, but also to bad policy. Calls for Obama to “get angry” have been usually followed by Obama ginning-up an artificial outburst, which is then followed by an arbitrary policy action. For example, the demands on the president to show outrage over bankers led to a large portion of financial reform discussion to be wasted on reforming big bonuses. Similarly, calls for Obama to get tough on terrorism have led to civil liberties restrictions that are even harsher than those introduced by Bush.

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