How Emotive Should A President Be?

Guest

Scott Horsley, NPR White House correspondent

President Obama, in reference to remarks made by BP CEO Tony Hayward, implied he would have fired Hayward. The interview was seen as part of an effort by the White House to show Obama is engaged in dealing with the oil spill. The President has been criticized for not expressing enough anger with BP.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, in his reaction to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some argue that President Obama sounds too professorial.

(Soundbite of presidential speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: I've authorized the deployment of 17,000 National Guard troops to aid in the response. More than 20,000 people are currently working around the clock to protect waters and coastlines. We've convened hundreds of top scientists and engineers from around the word. More than 1,900 vessels are in the Gulf assisting in the cleanup. And more than 4.3 million feet of boom had been deployed with another 2.9 million feet of boom available, enough to stretch over 1,300 miles.

CONAN: And that from just last Saturday in the president's weekly radio address. In the past couple of days though, he seems to have taken on a different persona. Here, the president talks with NBC's Matt Lauer.

(Soundbite of "Today Show")

Pres. OBAMA: I was down there a month ago, before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the gulf. A month ago, I was meeting with fishermen down there, standing in the rain, talking about what a potential crisis this could be. And I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talked to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick.

CONAN: So after criticism that the president was not emotive enough, do you hear a different president? What kind of response do you think is appropriate? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Scott Horsley is NPR's White House correspondent, joins us here in Studio 3A. Scott, nice to have you, as always.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

CONAN: And you follow the president every day. Are you noticing a different tone, a different president?

HORSLEY: Well, there's maybe a subtle difference. You get a sense in those two clips of the less-than-vast emotional range of Barack Obama. It's, you know, maybe not A to B, but A to C. Yes, he - the White House is clearly sensitive to the criticism from some of those talking heads, that he hasn't displayed enough anger. And he was certainly prompted there by "The Today Show's" Matt Lauer, who - he was sort of paraphrasing there when he talked about whose ass needed kicking.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. But you hear him dropping his Gs. He tends to do that. He's done that in the campaign. He's - he does that other times when he wants to, well, get a little folksy.

HORSLEY: Well, it's interesting that when you mentioned the campaign, it was his calm demeanor, especially during the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008 that a lot of people found reassuring. That same calmness, that same lack of flashes of anger, I think, is maybe costing him a little bit here.

CONAN: But some critics say they're looking for George W. Bush and his megaphone moment on top of the rubble there at the World Trade Center, or Bill Clinton who could feel our pain.

HORSLEY: Yeah, and I think there's a, you know, there are a number of different sources of his criticism. Some are folks who really want to focus more on how things are stage-managed than how they're managed. And I think, to that extent, the criticism's ill-founded.

For some people, talking about the president's anger level is sort of a proxy for talking about just how involved the federal government is. And there's certainly been legitimate criticism directed about whether the federal government was taking a strong enough stance. And then there are those who feel that the president has come across as too detached and not empathetic enough with the people who are suffering in the Gulf.

Although I have to say, having been down to the Gulf a couple of times with this president, watching him as he stands in the rain talking with those fishermen, you're not hearing that criticism from people in the Gulf themselves. They might have plenty of complaints about the federal government's response. I don't hear a lot of complaints from the Gulf about the level of anger in President Obama's voice.

CONAN: Here's an email from Seth(ph) in Portland. I find it frustrating that a president cool, collected and approaches issues including the oil spill academically would need to put on show of emotion to prove that he cares. Isn't it enough that he tells us he cares and look at his actions?

HORSLEY: And I think, actually, the president has been fairly careful not to put on a show of emotion. Even to the extent when he's told Larry King, for example, that he's furious about the situation or that exchange we just heard on "The Today Show," it still is Barack Obama in a genuine sense. You don't have the sense of someone reading lines off a cue card or a teleprompter in a way that is not his own personality. And then, of course, that's one of the things that the critics point to, is that it's too much of his calm, cool personality.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And let's go next to Clayton(ph), Clayton with us from Pine Grove in California.

CLAYTON (Caller): Hello, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CLAYTON: I kind of like the idea of hearing my president be a little bit more forceful. I like the idea that it's in this particular circumstance. And I got to say, it's probably about time this happened in this particular circumstance. Somebody has got to get angry. This thing has been pushed off for a long time, and they're finally starting to maybe get things accomplished. Maybe had it been a little more forceful from the start, it would have been taken care of a little quicker.

CONAN: And that's a criticism you hear a lot, Scott.

HORSLEY: Yes. And certainly as for weeks and weeks, we all watched the underwater cam of the oil billowing out, and one effort after another to cap the well failed. There was tremendous frustration, I think, across the country and especially along the Gulf and there is a sense from some that they want to feel that frustration being channeled by the commander in chief.

I think, on the other hand, the president himself has said, I'd love to sit around and vent, but all the venting in the world is not going to shut off that flow of oil.

CLAYTON: And I got to agree with that. You know, I am - let's put it this way. In full disclosure, I voted for McCain. But when it came down to the way that this president has handled most (unintelligible) situations than - and let's admit, he's handled more situations than most presidents in the recent past. He's done it with, well, respectable aplomb.

And when it goes down to the fact of how he handled this particular one, I think everybody was angry, and I think he was trying to maybe not, maybe even in the - to the benefit of BP, not create an uproar by showing his anger. And I think that actually maybe went too much to BP's - the good intentions went towards BP there.

HORSLEY: Well, and I think that - as I say, some of the critics, I think, view the level of anger in the president's voice as a metric of just how much pressure the federal government is either putting on BP or how much action the federal government itself is taking. I'm not sure that's really a good measure of that...

CONAN: (Unintelligible)

HORSLEY: ...but certainly, something that people are looking at.

CONAN: Clayton, I want to give somebody else a chance.

CLAYTON: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Now, let's see if we can go next to - this is Jim(ph), Jim with us from Pulteney in New York.

JIM (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Couple of points. One is that it seems to me that - it seems phony when the president tries to act presidential and speak formally and then also drop his Gs in the same sentence. And then, the other thing is it seems to diminish the power of the president's words when he finds himself on a position of having to talk all the time about everything.

CONAN: Well, Scott, there is a - well, you can - obviously, the president was educated at some of the finest institutions in the country, in - at Harvard, in Columbia and taught law at University of Chicago. If he starts dropping his Gs, does he come off a little phony?

HORSLEY: Obviously, it's a very subjective judgment. My sense is that it's still Barack Obama being an authentic Barack Obama. It does not come across to me as an act - and I've seen other politicians maybe carry it off less gracefully. But as the caller illustrates, some people do see it as phony.

CONAN: Well, here - thank you very much for the call, Jim. He's a charismatic politician certainly. We saw that in the campaign, but not in the same way as George W. Bush or as Bill Clinton.

HORSLEY: No, exactly. He's not someone who's going to go and hug the victims in a Bill Clinton or George W. Bush manner. That's just not who he is. And I think, to his credit, he hasn't really tried to be someone different than who he is.

CONAN: And is this costing him politically? His numbers are going down.

HORSLEY: Yeah, I think, it is costing him. But I think what's really costing him is that the problem hasn't been fixed, more than his emotional range.

CONAN: Let's see if we get Mike(ph) in on this. Mike's calling from Tulsa.

MIKE (Caller): Hello. I just wanted to say that we've been celebrating, upon his death, Coach John Wooden this week and what he said about emotion is if you play with emotion, it'll ruin your game. And what I would like to hear president say is that BP will no longer be allowed to do business in the United States.

CONAN: Well, that might be an emotional response because BP is an important oil company and deeply involved in trying to fix this problem in the Gulf. Mike, if you say they can't do business in the United States, first of all, you might have a constitutional issue here, but nevertheless, isn't that the kind of emotional response, you're decrying and that Coach...

MIKE: No. I think totally, that's the consequences they pay for being negligent.

CONAN: Well, I have to see how that works out in court, indeed criminal prosecution or criminal investigation has began, Scott.

HORSLEY: Yeah. And it sounds like the caller (unintelligible) talking about, kind of, talk softly and carry a big stick there. And the president is done one of those things at least as far as we know so far.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for call. Now, let's go next - this is Brian(ph), Brian with us from the Eastern Shore in Maryland.

BRIAN: Hi, Neal. I decided to call when you mentioned that the president was being criticized for sounding like a college professor. And I, for one, am glad to hear that the leader of this country sounds like a smart guy. I didn't have any real problem with George Bush, but he wasn't a great public speaker, and that didn't reflect well on the administration.

I also think that at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter whether he sounds like a professor or he's dropping his Gs. What's going to matter is, what is he going to do with this problem, and how it's going to play out in the next six months or a year? Results, I think, are far more important than whatever he has to say, especially with the constant media scrutiny of his every word.

HORSLEY: And I think the criticism about his emotional range hit a peak during that period, which went on for weeks, when we really weren't seeing any kind of favorable results.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We should note that the president has been speaking on issues other than just the oil spill. He was in suburban Washington yesterday to speak with seniors. And the president then spoke about a - putting the clamp on Medicare fraud.

President BARACK OBAMA: At my direction, Secretary Sebelius and Attorney General Holder have expanded efforts across the county to vigorously crack down on criminals who seek to take advantage of seniors and of taxpayer dollars. We've established a joint health care fraud prevention and enforcement action team, also known as HEAT.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: Yeah. You like that. HEAT.

CONAN: We have to stretch a little bit to get health care fraud prevention and enforcement program into HEAT, but I guess somebody did.

HORSLEY: There's a whole task force that comes up with the acronyms, I'm sure.

CONAN: I'm sure they do. And that's the kind of thing that you do - does sound awfully familiar from the campaign.

HORSLEY: Yes. Yes. And it was a campaign-style event, as the president is still out there trying to sell the health care overhaul as something that's going to work for seniors and for others around the country.

CONAN: Something that - like the resolution, whenever one may happen, to the oil problem is also going to be very important, not just for the midterm elections, but for his prospects for reelection.

HORSLEY: That's right.

CONAN: Scott Horsley, thanks very much for your time today.

HORSLEY: Great to be with you.

CONAN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, with us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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