President Obama Is Not Spock


The American Prospect's Adam Serwer notes today, "One of the things I used to like about the president is that he always seemed indifferent to village demands that he acquiesce to whatever empty political gesture they wanted him to make." 

Well, Serwer can relax.  

President Obama did not conjure up the posterior metaphor on his own. He turned Matt Lauer's "butt" into an "ass," and his annoyance seemed to be more a consequence of Lauer's questions than of any effort to appear angry.    Appearing angry and appearing engaged are two different things. The White House understands how anger can be appropriately channeled and employed, but at this point, they are eager for the public to see the president as engaged -- as problem solving.

If President Obama hadn't said "ass," then he'd be accused of not being angry enough. Because he did say "ass," he's accused of titrating his response to criticisms that he's not angry enough about the oil leak. The man cannot win. 

To observers who lived through the Clinton years, a president who fails to capture the sentiment that the public desires of its president somehow does not live up to the moment, as if the American people elected their politicians to emote on command. It does not surprise me that Maureen Dowd, of all people, coined the comparison to Star Trek's Spock -- an emotionless Vulcan who thought rigorously and logically -- all prefontal cortex. 

I've always thought the comparison was weird. Spock was not entirely Vulcan. He was half-human. And in the fictional Star Trek universe, his best moments -- his most valuable moments -- were when he effectively meshed his "Vulcan" side with his human side -- accessing his emotions at appropriate and effective moments. ("There are times when the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.") And so on.  

What bemuses insiders is the idea that Obama is somehow a stoic. That's laughable. There's a healthy amount of dopamine in the president. In private, the president can be witheringly sarcastic and profane. He can also be light, playful; he is rarely sad, occasionally angry, and always upbeat. This Spock has emotions. What he does not do -- and what he is poor at doing -- is fake an emotion simply for the sake of appearing to display an emotion. 

We make a logical error in assuming that he does not allow emotional considerations to guide his policy. What Obama wants doesn't matter; he can't make a decision without emotion; emotions often (or always) tip the strict logic scales we keep in our brains and use to make decisions. We also assume that the lack of displayed emotion is not emotion at all. 

When Obama is angry, when he is frustrated, he begins to take stock of arguments; his anger shifts him into law professor mode. He struggles to pack facts into his pre-frontal cortex. He wants to get the decision right.  Now, sometimes, he gets paralyzed by analysis, as the author Jonah Lehrer might say; but even here, we make the mistake of separating rationality from emotion. Unless the man's brain is wired differently, even the process of weighing evidence is washed by the emotional processors of his limbic system. 

So there are two separate issues here. 1. Does Obama allow feelings to help him arrive at the facts? Yes. 2. Does this process satisfy the collective demand for presidential emotional valence? Probably not. Which is more important?
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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