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Show Us Some Drama, Obama

When the president was a candidate, his staff referred to him as “No Drama Obama." That’s the way he is: cool, steady, no histrionics, no distractions, keep your eye on the ball. This is a moment, however, when he ought to get in touch with his anger -- and let everyone witness the encounter.

Americans are well ahead of their political leaders in their outrage at the greed and irresponsibility of the preening Wall Street “geniuses” who wrecked the economy. The White House obviously has realized that in order to orchestrate a recovery -- which will surely necessitate another bailout, however it’s framed -- the president will have to get out in front of the public’s anger and try to channel it in the directions he wants it to flow. Confronted with the egregious AIG bonuses, Obama did the right thing: He came out before the cameras and told everyone how outraged he was.

But righteous anger doesn’t seem to come naturally to him. I happened to read his prepared remarks before he delivered them, and they looked plenty wrathful. When he spoke, though, he sounded… analytical. Unruffled. Reasonable. He was stern in directing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to find some way to get the $165 million in bonus money back, but he didn’t give the impression of being ready to slug the first Wall Street trader unlucky enough to cross his path.

When he coughed and said “Excuse me, I’m choked up with anger here,” he almost seemed to adopt an air of ironic detachment. Believe me, Americans aren’t feeling ironically detached about much of anything right now.

I’m talking theatrics here, but theatrics count. In many ways, Obama may be the best presidential communicator in many years. The way he explained the economic crisis in his speech to Congress last month, for example, was masterful, and it’s hard to imagine any recent president making something so complicated seem so understandable. But he hasn’t yet shown that he can match Bill Clinton, to say nothing of Ronald Reagan, in conveying emotion. This crisis requires not just a commander-in-chief but an avenger-in-chief -- and will require the president, whose instinct is to shed light on any given situation, to give off some heat as well.

By Eugene Robinson  | March 16, 2009; 6:23 PM ET
Categories:  Robinson  | Tags:  Eugene Robinson  
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Comments

Sorry, Gene.....Obama was hired to be above the fray, not be a part of it.....call it drama if you want, but I'd prefer he sticks to being president... and I mean the real thing...

Posted by: seakeys | March 16, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Obama would be more comfortable going after Wall Street folks if he had not raised so much money from them.

Posted by: bobmoses | March 16, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse

It is precisely this lack of emotion or drama from Obama which leads me to fear that he will be a one term president.

I remember how Carter used to lecture the American public as if he were leading a college seminar. People stopped listening.

Obama needs to show a human side with some emotion or else he may well find that there is no one following him.

Posted by: NewEra | March 16, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse

I think you are right Eugene. If he could just mirror the sentiment of many Americans in this instance then I think that the popular mobilization that will be required to achieve his budget plan would be much more accessible. Instead, he appeared so flat-and the cough instance was really uncomfortable-it almost seemed like he was mocking the whole ordeal.

Posted by: CypressTree | March 16, 2009 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Gene, you are exactly right, there are times when righteous anger is the only reasonable reaction - even Jesus went after the money changers in the temple, I bet they didn't make anything near 160 million! Sometimes if you can't get mad, you can't lead - Reagan knew how to get angry, and so did Roosevelt.

Posted by: mgferrebee | March 16, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

It may be difficult for him to feign surprise and drama now. It is a double-edged sword. If he claims surprise, he acknowledges incompetence.

There's no way he didn't know. I don't believe his outrage is anything other than theater meant to redirect anger towards AIG, to falsely distance himself from this travesty.

The anger is correctly aimed at the administration. He's last stop before money goes out the door. He failed to stop it because he never planned to stop it. In fact, he plans to send more money out the door. That's why he so disparately needs to deflect the anger.

Bailouts have had their day. If they weren't enough, too bad. I look forward to seeing these giants crumble no matter what the cost. It must be cheaper than keeping them going.


Posted by: sobi1 | March 16, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

eugene,
love your columns. I think it's time for Barack to seize the lion by the tail. The Wall Street culture of greed has gone on long enough. How about a major Presidential address at some major business forum --preferably on Wall Street-- where all these so-called trader/broker/thiefs can be coralled. A major speech on the liberal commitment to the preservation of American capitalism, something like that??

Posted by: cjburke2 | March 16, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

That flip comment, "Believe me, I'm choked up with anger," sounded a lot to me like, "Read my hips." This from a guy who took $105,000 in campaign contributions from AIG, the most of any candidate in the last cycle.

Obama is going to be hurt by this clip.

Posted by: FormerSubscriber | March 16, 2009 7:41 PM | Report abuse

It's time for Obama to take a lesson from Reagan and the traffic controllers and fire these greedy clowns. If there is no way to block the bonuses, each accepted bonus should be accompanied by public announcement of the recipient's name and a pink slip. He promised accountability, let's demonstrate that now.

Posted by: endoguy | March 16, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

I can't put a good spin on it. Obama ought to be smart enough to know how pissed people are and respond accordingly. I was offended at his casualness. I have family who are feeling this, hard, and for Obama to go up there, all casual, making that ironic joke, pisses me off. He thinks it couldn't happen to him, losing popularity fast. He better think hard and act fast. $0 more bailouts is a start.

Posted by: tjk2 | March 16, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Actually - forget the Reagan- allusion. Obama needs to step it up like Kennedy did against US Steel and their ilk.He swatted US Steel down like a fly in midflight

Posted by: therev1 | March 16, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

eugene am a smart man

Posted by: obblehit | March 16, 2009 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Sirring the pot for stirring the pot's sake must pay very well,Mr.Robinson.There is no conviction in your literary or journalistic voice.Mondays are not good for you,huh? Get some rest and you'll be better in the morning.Perhaps you will be so refreshed that you can campaign to run against Obama in '12,win,and implement your narcissistic vision of how all things should be.We're still waiting for a Savior,Sir.Are you it?

Posted by: klowry57 | March 16, 2009 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Am I understanding you correctly Mr. Robinson?.. Your advocating for the "first African-American" President to punch a wall-street trader/banker??...who is more than likely a "caucasin".....Exactly.... that's what this country needs... an "Avenger President"...Is Joe Biden going to play Andrew Johnson in your little play?

Posted by: patkimjax02 | March 16, 2009 8:23 PM | Report abuse

If not drama, how about a little maturity!

Posted by: GordonShumway | March 16, 2009 8:55 PM | Report abuse

And what should President Obama's reaction be to the man in the mirror who proposes to spend the United States of America into bankruptcy?

Posted by: breth | March 16, 2009 9:12 PM | Report abuse

Come on, Fourth Estate, do your part. Publish the names and addresses of the bonus beneficiaries. Post them on the Internet.

Posted by: donnolo | March 16, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I totally disagree with you. I don't want to see a dramatic presentation. Obama can best show his anger by his actions. I have seen too many politicians put on a good show and not do anything. Let his actions show his emotions.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | March 16, 2009 9:20 PM | Report abuse

Wow! This is the first time I disagree with Eugene.

Give the guy a break! So, he doesn't have the acting chops of Reagan (or Clinton), but we need an even-tempered President. And I don't think he was being flip. He seemed to be trying to lighten the mood and failed at that, unfortunately.

How long has he been in office...almost 8 weeks, right?

Posted by: kemodog | March 16, 2009 9:22 PM | Report abuse

I've been a supporter of Obama for President since before he entered the race.

All through the past two years there have been a number of times that I wished he'd get mad, get even, go out slugging. And every time, Barack went for No Drama. And every time, I came out feeling glad that he was the candidate/President, and not me.

In the end, his cool, calm intelligence works out for the best, like he's several moves ahead of even his most ardent supporters.

And, so, as much as I wished that President Obama hadn't done away with Bush's dictatorial power of simply declaring someone a terrorist and rendering to some black hole of torture (and do so with the AIG financial terrorists), I've got to disagree with Gene and go with my man, Barack.

He's the good angel on our shoulders, and he always seems to offer the best advice in the end.

Posted by: TerryOakland | March 16, 2009 9:31 PM | Report abuse

When questioned about where the money went that Bush had authorized... No-Bama's press Secretary said 2 weeks ago that Obama knew exactly where the AIG money was going. They would have safe guards blah blah blah Now it appears that was another No-Bama lie or half-truth for you koolaid drinkers. It is obvious...Geithner and Obama have no clue. This stimulus money is going to foreign banks and in peoples pockets. Another stimulus will foster more greed and no accountability. You people fell for this Pied Piper....he has NO CLUE and you havent seen anything YET. Wake up already and get mad...get damn mad ...at Obama, Frank, Pelosi, Reid, Chris Dodd and all these losers that have been controlling Congress since 2006. It is no longer justt Bush's fault - this is Obamas watch and he is doing a lousy, miserable job. No matter how you try to spin it we know better- Obama is THE DRAMA and he has always been drama.

Posted by: JUNGLEJIM123 | March 16, 2009 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Paahhhleeeasseee. Obama is good in front of a telepromter, but he does not do so well on the fly.

Posted by: joe_average | March 16, 2009 9:57 PM | Report abuse

Accountability -- Aloofness -- US Steel -- Courage of conviction -- Approval (under 60%) -- Pink Slips -- False Distance -- Choked Up -- Publish the Names -- Actions Show --

Together, an extended haiku that inspired and illuminated -- thanks to all for sharing -- perhaps the impulse will find its destination.

I am reminded of the (was it Apache?) elevation of a "Red Chief" during conflict and crisis; maintaining a "White Chief" during peace and plenty -- seems most are calling for our "White Chief" (calm/cool) President to get in touch with his inner "Red Chief" (heat/passion).

Tough bridge to traverse, as an authentic migration can prove difficult. This is why two chiefs were needed.

Whip thought: Could Biden be "Red Chief" to Obama's "White Chief"? Could he offer that emotion, which seems to flow naturally, that otherwise rests uncomfortably square on Obama's round shoulders? Was that the genius of the hire? Maybe he really could offer substantial, not just token, service.

Maybe let your partner truly help in this regard: let Biden "rail" (as he loves to do) and let Obama "ruminate" (as he is wont to do). Both are authentic and satisfying experiences. Imagine that.

Posted by: OH2LA2VA | March 16, 2009 10:04 PM | Report abuse

There are two plausible sources of Barack Obama's less-than-passionate tone on this issue that your plea for anger fails to present or analyze. The first is the President's general ambivalence towards financial regulation which, while clearly a welcome contrast to the Bush Administration hostility, tends to reflect the contradiction within his administration between those such as Summers and Geithner who helped engineer de-regulation (and whose ties to banking industry remain strong) and more democratically inclined populists such as Axelrod who understand that a greater degree of social democracy will be needed to promote economic recovery. The second is the apparently conscious decision Obama made quite some time ago in his political career never to display anger in public out of concern that the majority-white electorate might perceive such anger as directed at white people generally and would thus interpret it as threatening. Now, when righteous anger is appropriate, he may find it difficult to abandon what has perhaps become political habit. Is it not then the responsibility of those of us who support a more aggressive, populist and regulatory stance, to shed light on this dilemma and in doing so advance the honest racial dialog that the President's Attorney General urged us to embrace in a recent speech?

Posted by: avrambarlowe | March 16, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Robinson, what you fail to realize is that are people who do not have anger. They get upset or disappointed but, by nature, they just do not use anger.
My husband is that way.
I would think Mr. Robinson, that you of all people would be happy we have a president who doesn't go off, act like a cowboy, or overreacts.
Obama is admired for his cool head and steady ways. You can be upset and not show anger.
And in this climate with so many posturing in Washington, it's a breath of fresh air to have the leader of our country reject all that grandstanding and take the wiser course.
The last time we had our president do something foolish in a fit and need to show his tough guy act and prove his manhood by going off half cocked, we went into Iraq.

Posted by: vwcat | March 16, 2009 10:51 PM | Report abuse

Once again Mr. Robinson you hit the nail on the head. I am proud to be able read such a fine article. Thank you.

Posted by: datalley | March 16, 2009 11:00 PM | Report abuse

E. R,
Are you prepared to be slugged when you write a bad column? I think not.
This is a second-rate column. And you've seen too many movies.

Posted by: kls1 | March 16, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Take the bonuses. Wine and dine the stockholders and CEO's. All I want to hear from the President is that we got our money back and AIG is the next Enron.

Out of business.

Posted by: OK4obama | March 16, 2009 11:25 PM | Report abuse

Hi Eugene,

Another obvious, on point, and insightful article! I totally concur with your assessment, and yes I feel President Obama should go much further then a forceful speech (and I for one believe he will.). The executives should be fired, the board should be put under review...heck we (every taxpayer)are on the board right!!???


Ok...here is another one, AIG pays us back $165 million right now, and as well, they nor their subsidiaries are given any other financial assistance!! Lets definitely tack on an investigation of fraud(if you look at it from a different angle....that is exactly what it is....FRAUD!)as well!


I personally would be happy if a combination of these suggestions were implemented.....again that is just me!

Posted by: rayven-t | March 16, 2009 11:53 PM | Report abuse

On a humorous note, Saturday Night Live recently did a skit called "The Rock Obama." Guest starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson of film action hero fame, the skit plays like a fantasy of what would happen when President Obama really gets mad. Hint: He becomes The Rock! A video of this is available on nbc.com. Check it out!

Posted by: susie-q | March 17, 2009 12:41 AM | Report abuse

Since Obama is half-black, I would really, really, really like to see the angry half-black man - at least. If this isn't the time to show us he's on our side, while fighting for all of our programs, when will it be? Sometimes a good right hook...you know?

Posted by: sellingpencils | March 17, 2009 12:58 AM | Report abuse

I want a grown-up to run this country. I am sick and tired of drama queens who think being an a-hole is a leadership characteristic. It is not.

Posted by: vrob125 | March 17, 2009 1:04 AM | Report abuse

I think it's funny to hear the government concerned about finding a "legal way" to block the bonuses. You're the government -- go pass a law that says "no bonuses for AIG", and then you've found the legal way!!!

Posted by: hithere2 | March 17, 2009 1:09 AM | Report abuse

Here is how President Obama would have addressed Congress the day after Pearl Harbor:
Yesterday, December 7, 1941, was a day that some outrageous things were done at Pearl Harbor, the US was suddenly and Possibly deliberately -we don't have all the facts yet - attacked by the empire of Japan. I am directing my secretary of War to see if any thing can be done legally under international law to require Japan to pay for the ships and planes damaged in the attacks. And because we are in a depression I will ask him to see if the families of the sailors and airmen killed in the attack can be compensated -consisitent with international law - for the burial of their lost loved ones.

I voted for this man, but he sounds weak - more like Buchanan or Pearce than Lincoln, and he should remember how the enemies of the union, and history, treated those guys. Lincoln always reminded people that he was the President of the United States 'clothed in great powers' by the Constitution and the people of the United States - he did not set down and negotiate with Govenors, much less security traders, as an equal.

Posted by: mgferrebee | March 17, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Eugene I ususally agree with you but I don't get why the President should "show" outrage. That's unprofessional and not productive. Also, we just had an administration that was good at "showing" I want President to do.

Posted by: rlj1 | March 17, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Eugene, a little more indignation and anger would be a wise performance for the president. It probably won’t do much for the economy or the direction of the stimulus money but it would make the citizenry feel better.

I think the people want to see big daddy Obama spank the big bad Wall Street Executives. I know I would.

Posted by: jazzbass19692003 | March 17, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

You know Mr. Robinson, during his campaign I kept wanting Mr. Obama to get angry (verbal, vocal, and outraged)at some of the things the Republican candidates were saying about him; all the lies and innuendo. You know what? He never did and he went on to win the election. I believe Mr. Obama has a greater grasp of the American citizen's heart beat than any President we have had for many a year.. He will get the job done but in a very methodical way. Trust him.

Posted by: OHREALLYNOW | March 17, 2009 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Why is it that employment, benefit and retirement contracts with working people are thrown aside without a thought while the jobs and bonuses of executives, and their racketeering enablers, are sacrosanct? If these are the very employees and executives who brought their companies to failure, why were they not fired? By what logic do they need to be “retained” with the incentive of bonuses?

This is not about anger or scapegoating. It is about fundamental honesty and doing the right thing by the American people. Where is the leadership that Obama promised? Where is the courage to stand up to a portion of the economy that is no longer distinguishable from organized crime?

s_a_b

Posted by: s_a_b | March 17, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

I agree with some of your observations, however, not your's and many others conclusions. I appreciate the depth of the problem and the limits available to the President as it regards solutions. Any expression of emotion or lack of control will likely hurt the brand and the status of the office. I have supported this President from the start and like some have often wished he was as reactive as I. However, I've also learned not to second guess this guy as candidate and now President. Let's see what happens at the G20 and see if his popularity and heady stylish leadership leads the rest of the world into effective action. Besides, there is NY AG Cuomo for the histrionics.

Posted by: freesmilesinc | March 17, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

"Give the people bread and circus", was the motto of ancient Rome's incompetent dictators.

Today, when there is no bread, Mr Robinson asks the government for, at least, some circus.

Posted by: tropicalfolk | March 17, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Obama has stayed above the fray during the campaign with all the cheap shots and innuendo.

He is not the angry type. IF he was he would have displayed it long ago. He's just not built that way.

Analytical and steady is his trademark.

Posted by: fresno500 | March 17, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

if he got angry he would be known as the angry black man, (everyone always forgets his mother's contributions)now i get angry all the time it's my nature you can't manufacture it to appease some people. it is not in his character to get angry, if he tried it would look phoney.let the man be himself his anger won't steady the economy, nor get people hired or save a home.no one suggested that bush stop posturing and acting like the bully he and cheney are.no one tried to change his character, tho i wished some had tried, many people would be alive now, and may would still have their 401ks.

Posted by: ninnafaye | March 17, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

All day every day is a crisis in the MSM, I'm glad Obama can remain calm in the turmoil. Some one has to be the grown up.

Posted by: AverageJane | March 17, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse

President Obama's communication skills come from his detachment. He was an outstanding lawyer and law professor before entering politics.

The President remembers the basic rule of responding to one who abuses your trust as AIG did. "Don't get mad. Get even!"

Getting even takes detachment and time. An emotional speech such as Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan would give would make people feel good for a day. But they will not get over the outrage at financial institutions until lawsuits are filed against the recipients of bonuses to recover the bonuses and the rest of their assets for their breach of fiduciary duties to the corporation. Grand juries need to be convened to return indictments. He has only been in office for seven weeks.

Kipling said it best. "If you can keep your head about you, when all around you are losing theirs. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, yet make allowances for their doubting too. ..."

Posted by: RSteagall | March 18, 2009 2:57 AM | Report abuse

Unless you're a professional actor, it's kind of hard to genuinely and convincingly express an emotion if you're not actually feeling it. It seems to me that, as with so many other issues, Obama has adopted the very sort of ironic detachment that is referred to here that has prevented him from connecting with voters on this issue, if not with the issue itself.

Clearly, effective leader cannot let themselves become paralyzed, hampered or constrained by too much emotion. But just as clearly, they need to have some emotional connection to the issues to be able to genuinely and effectively deal with them. Finding the right balance between the two is a challenge that every leader faces--and every effective leader figures out.

Just about every successful president that I can think of had his emotional side, and not only an angry one. TR had his "Bully!" persona, FDR his resolute and avuncular qualities, LBJ his ornery horse trader charm--even Lincoln, otherwise a calm presence, had his grave and sober gravitas to give his words greater weight.

I think that for the most part, Obama's cool nature is just fine. But he could definitely stand to benefit from a little more heat under the collar. Not only to connect with the public, but with the issues themselves.

Just a little drama, Obama!

Posted by: kovie | March 18, 2009 5:53 AM | Report abuse

I'll take thoughtfulness and competence over drama any day. He just makes the throbbing veined screamers look even sillier. Don't get mad, get even. Vengeance best served cold. That kind of stuff.

Posted by: thebobbob | March 18, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

During the campaign, I used to get distressed that Obama was not getting angry enough about the outrageous attacks from the McCain camp -- especially the ones saying he 'pals around with terrorists.' I wanted him to get mad and and show righteous anger. He didn't and it was the correct decision. The cool headed Barack Obama is the man we elected. I trust for now the even temper, the stable emotions he is displaying, for now, is what is needed.

Posted by: creatia52 | March 18, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Eugene,
People are totally missing the point about the NEED for us to unwind the financial crisis slowly - Wall Street has caused great embarrassment to America. Heads of State from China, Japan, Germany and Poland are blaming us because our corporations (AIG) sold bad insurance that if not paid would cause their economy to collapse. So the Administration had no choice but to clean up that mess. They got Liddy because he understands the financial market and can direct the ship until the company is unwound. We are saving America's face in cleaning up this debt.

Posted by: HarrietA | March 18, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

This Administration is a trainwreck right out of the station. I cannot wait til next year, after obama's superstar status is destroyed because of his inept, hairbrained policies, when the Republicans make big gains in Congress and stops this road to socialism we seem to be heading down.

Posted by: LouDog | March 19, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

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