Obama ‘Needs to Stop Sounding Like Dad’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross in Family Ties (Wikipedia)

After President Obama’s anti-ISIS speech, I said that I agreed with his strategy and its underlying logic, but could understand why it might not reassure those who felt most fearful. Last night several readers responded, including one who talked about the president’s super-rational “Vulcan”/Spock-like style.

Now, some harsher views. First from a reader on the West Coast, who agrees with the president’s message but disapproves of his tone:

The president's ideas and words were great but the delivery was abysmal.  He sounded not like a professor, but like a dad pleading to his wayward teenagers to wise up and stop smoking out in the shed.  Do you hear the stress and rising tone in his supposedly declarative statements?

Obama knows that public opinion is out of control, and he’s gone into coping mode. What the country needs instead—and what Roosevelt brought—is a president who brings a posture of commanding authority.

To achieve that, what Obama personally needs—and is not getting from his tone-deaf staff—is theatrical direction. That’s peachy if Obama analyzes issues like a professor. But a great professor knows that in the classroom, he needs to be a great performer.

Next, from a reader on the East Coast who is in the defense-policy business:

I don’t have any sympathy for Trump or Cruz, who are intuitive and calculated demagogues respectively. But I do have sympathy for a lot of their followers. People are scared. Should they be less scared? Perhaps. Should they accept that there is no solution to their fears, and that the over-reaction is the worst option? Again, perhaps.

But that is not realistic. Leaders need to deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. When President Obama comes out, after a terrorist attack, and says, basically, “nothing to worry about, everything is going according to plan, just be patient,” it is nothing short of an abdication of responsibility.

It hands the discourse over to a Trump or a Cruz because even if their policies are crazy, at least they are acknowledging that people are scared and want something done.

The problem with Obama’s “vulcan” response isn’t that white people don’t want to be lectured by a black man. The problem is that in failing to address the angst people are feeling he is failing in the most fundamental task of a political leader—having empathy for his constituents.

Worse, when Obama spends the last quarter of his speech lecturing the public not to hold Muslims responsible, he is again not taking into account the public mood. It is perfectly understandable for people to be mad at Muslims. This isn’t about San Bernardino. It is also about Paris. And the Russian airliner. And Turkey. And Mali. And Somalia. And Yemen. And Syria. And Iraq. And Afghanistan. And basically everywhere in the world where there is any sizable Muslim community.

Yes, the vast majority of the victims of violence are Muslims as well. The Syrian refugees are victims, not perpetrators of violence. But insisting that the fear people have of Muslims is only racism flies in the face of what seems to many people like overwhelming evidence. And a single, anodyne line about how Muslims need to fight extremism as well is not sufficient to calm the public.

Again, I fully agree with Obama’s approach as a matter of substance if policy could be made in an isolated bubble, but it can’t. And refusing to address public concerns because doing so is inconvenient is not leadership.

Michael J. Fox not in his Family Ties incarnation but as a White House aide

As Michael J. Fox’s character in The American President puts it: “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage. When they discover there's no water there, they'll drink the sand.”


Finally, from another reader who agrees with the president’s logic and wishes it would be extended:

I just wanted to add a number to your reference to deaths by car crashes and lung cancer. It is a recurring issue, but the estimated number of Americans who die due to medical mistakes every year is over 400,000. See this link.

That is almost 1,100 every day. That is two fully loaded 747’s crashing every day. That is a World Trade Center falling every three days. All year long. And no one notices, no one raises a voice. It is not that doctors are bad, it is just that the medical community is a couple of generations behind the aviation community (old NYT link).

Every death is a tragedy, but there is a question of scale. In 2000, 412 people died by falling off of ladders and scaffolding, that’s over four times more than died in domestic terrorism attacks. When is Trump going to say something about ladders?

There is something to be said that an effective president has to be a bit of a scoundrel, in order to get something done and to bend public opinion. FDR and Johnson come to mind. Obama’s problem is that he isn't a scoundrel. There are enough of them around, it is just that the ones around don't have any positive characteristics.


For the next week or so I will be off-line, for print-magazine reasons. I’ll check back in by the time of the next GOP debate to see what on Earth has happened with Donald Trump.