The President We Elected

CNN’s Gloria Borger says that President Obama is exactly who he was supposed to be.

He was elected because he is cool, calm and analytical. That’s what we wanted to see after George W. Bush, so we made him president. But now the disaster in the Gulf has made many of us want to see someone else — with plenty of anger, emotion and bravado. We want him to yell at BP. We want him to loudly tell us he’s whipping the cleanup effort into shape.

We can’t tell BP ourselves, so we want him to do it for us.

Fair enough. But that’s not the person we elected.

So we want him to morph into something he isn’t — which is exactly what we hate about our politicians. We want him to be another Barack Obama, an actor. Maybe we want him to be George Bush with the bullhorn after 9/11. Only he isn’t.

And he isn’t the first president to have his empathy gene questioned, either. Remember Bush 41, who had to flatly tell us, “Message: I care,” when we didn’t think he did care? Or his son, who had to declare his concern for the Gulf Coast when playing catch-up on Katrina.

There is one president, of course, who never had to be prodded into the empathy zone: Bill Clinton. He felt our pain all the time. Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell put it this way: “If Bill Clinton was president, he’d have been in a wetsuit, trying to get down to see the spill.” He’s right, of course, but think back for a moment: That’s exactly what Americans came to distrust about Clinton. By emoting too much, they never knew what to believe. What was real and what wasn’t?

True to form, we want it all. We want a leader who can feel our pain while rising above it. We say we don’t trust government, but we look to it for answers and cleanups. And we elected Barack Obama. Now we want to change him.

Now, of course, the “we” is misplaced here in that I neither voted for him nor calling for him to emote more.   But I think Borger’s right:  This is who Obama is and he never pretended to be otherwise.

Indeed, at several points during the campaign, Hillary Clinton and John McCain reacted immediately and vigorously to various unfolding crises whereas Obama kept his head down and waited, sometimes several days, before responding.   It seems to have worked out just fine for him.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.