Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 1, 2010

DAVID BROOKS KNOWS WHAT WILL MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER.... The media herd has decided: President Obama is probably doing all he can to deal with the BP oil spill disaster, but he's falling short of their emotional expectations.

I've lost count of how many times I've seen the "he's too poised" complaint in recent days, but the NYT's David Brooks is the latest to tell America what Americans think about their president: "They demand that he hold press conferences, show leadership, announce that the buck stops here and do something. They want him to emote and perform the proper theatrical gestures so they can see their emotions enacted on the public stage."

Putting aside the inherent conceit that comes with claiming to know what Americans "want" and "demand" based on nothing but a pundit's assumptions, the first half of Brooks' expectations seem to have been met. The president really has talked to the press, shown leadership, declared that the buck stops with him, and taken many steps to launch an aggressive federal response to the crisis.

The second part is more condescending -- we apparently want "theatrical gestures," Brooks tells us, to satisfy some psychological urge for public wish-fulfillment and verisimilitude.

But Brooks' shallow suggestion is unpersuasive precisely because it's a standard that no one can meet. As Greg Sargent explained today, "no matter how angry or emotional [the president] becomes, he will always have fallen short."

The point is that this is an entirely arbitrary yardstick with which to measure Obama's performance, and the bar will inevitably rise ever higher.... Mike Allen is onto the absurdity of this dynamic. Today he made the half-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that before long Obama would appear in the Gulf on a boat.

Yes, appearances are important. Surely the public does look to the president for some kind of reassurance amid crises. But my bet is the public will judge Obama's performance almost exclusively based on the substance of his response: Whether he holds BP meaningfully accountable. Whether the administration does what it takes to exert real control over the response to the disaster. Whether Obama uses this crisis to push for a larger solution to the vast underlying problem that produced it.

It's harder to talk about these issues than it is to dash off a column comparing Obama to Spock.

Quite right. Right now, the media's evaluations boil down to two absurd standards: has Obama successfully plugged the oil-gushing hole and has he openly wept and/or banged on his podium enough. The president comes up short on both counts, in large part because "theatrical gestures" are dumb benchmarks.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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David Brooks, please STFU! Thank you.

Posted by: teed on June 1, 2010 at 4:49 PM | PERMALINK

They would rather have a syntax-mangling, closed-minded, dissembling, "deer in headlights" tool of the very forces responsible for what happened?

I often wish Obama would be more tart sometimes, but every time he his - the same media whores rip on him for that. They want "something" to complain about all the time, so it doesn't matter a lot what he does.

Posted by: Neil B on June 1, 2010 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a little sick of the "not showing enough emotion" hooey myself.

As a comparison, we saw a whole lot of emotion from old GW Bush, followed by a whole lot of really bad decisions.

I don't need a daddy, I don't need someone patting my head and I don't need emotion packed rants. I want clear, honest answers and plans - I want brains, not emotions leading us. This whole he's not emotional nonsense is just crap.

Better yet, in lieu of phoney theatrical public displays of emotion, lets put our emotions into increase regulations and fines levied on the drillers.

Posted by: Jilli on June 1, 2010 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

I read Brooks column and I dont think that was his point. His point seems to be crisis yields irrational response. The public knows Obama is not responsible , yet they want him to say something encouraging. Brook's also makes an interesting point about risk, and risk management.

Posted by: RolloTomasi on June 1, 2010 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you Steve! I have been railing about this issue for WEEKS. My family thinks I'm crazy as I shriek at the TV or the internet. The media wants their 'Bubba moment' and they won't rest until their sensationalist headlines or punditry is blessed. I am really sick of no accountability while screaming for 'accountability'.

Posted by: SYSPROG on June 1, 2010 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

As a comparison, we saw a whole lot of emotion from old GW Bush...

Actually, as I recall, we didn't. About the only emotions Bush ever showed were smug sneering, inappropriate self-satisfaction, and jingoistic aggression. He never gave a damn about anyone but himself, so we got rather emotionless statements after 9/11 (until it was time for war) and certainly once he actually got around to speaking after Katrina.

That makes this press narrative doubly stupid -- it's both an unattainable standard that has no practical effect, and it's another example of new demands about how presidents have supposedly always behaved that mysteriously only apply to Obama.

Posted by: Redshift on June 1, 2010 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK

And yet, before the most recent spate of public affairs, Obama's approval on the spill was in the negative.

Look I hate Obama, and this isn't fair but he's the one who wanted to treat the American people as adults. Most of us knew this was a mistake. Americans AREN'T adults. But live by the sword, die by the sword.

Posted by: mnpundit on June 1, 2010 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

To be fair, Brooks was not recommending that Obama pound the podium. He wrote, "In times of crisis, you get a public reaction that is incoherence on stilts." His point was that the American people are on the one hand uneasy with big government, yet "accustomed to the new programs and to the new presidential role." So regardless of what the President should do, emoting is what people want/expect him to do.

However that was a tangent. The main point of Brooks' piece was that Washington is now gridlocked. There will be no progress from here on out on any significant issues. He gives no backing or support for this prediction, and no doubt the administration and Democrats in Congress relish the thought of proving him wrong.

Posted by: FC on June 1, 2010 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

They would rather have a syntax-mangling, closed-minded, dissembling, "deer in headlights" tool of the very forces responsible for what happened?

Naaah... they just want to stoke the fire of public opinion that got said tool elected in the first place. Makes for a better horse race, ya know?

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on June 1, 2010 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

How do I get one of these pundit jobs? I can write drivel that's just as fatuous and poorly thought out, and I'll do it for half the price.

Posted by: Kevin Phillips Bong on June 1, 2010 at 5:19 PM | PERMALINK

"Yes, appearances are important. Surely the public does look to the president for some kind of reassurance amid crises. But my bet is the public will judge Obama's performance almost exclusively based on the substance of his response: Whether he holds BP meaningfully accountable. Whether the administration does what it takes to exert real control over the response to the disaster. Whether Obama uses this crisis to push for a larger solution to the vast underlying problem that produced it."

So Benen-- and other commentors-- HAS Obama met Greg Sargent's standards on any or all of the above?? Benen can also be ridiculous for seizing on silly standards as the measures to which Obama should be held. My assessment of Obama and Sargent's standards is "no".

Posted by: gdb on June 1, 2010 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, and if Obama were engaging in "theatrical gestures," Good Ole Brooksy would be pining for the more stoic poise of some dry-drunk from Texas. This is what David Brooks is good for, and nothing more. He's unqualified to clean up dog sick.
"Now watch this drive!"

Posted by: Govt Skeptic on June 1, 2010 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

Brooks is a dishonest flack, and I won't waste my time reading him. However, I did read Robert Reich's call for a long overdue takeover of BP just yesterday. But that's another story.

Here's an excerpt of a reaction by Dakinkat of Louisiana, posted at Firedoglake (5/30 11:01 AM), that strikes to the heart of public perception.

"Here’s an example of the response we deserve. It’s from LBJ’s response to Hurricane Betsy. I know that LBJ was a different kind of man than we usually see in the White House these days, but he really had the right idea.

After the storm passed, Louisiana Senator Russell Long, the son of the legendary Senator and Governor Huey Long, called President Johnson to get the President to tour the devastated areas. In Long’s unique style, he let the LBJ know that the Betsy had severely damaged his own home and had nearly killed his family.

LBJ arrived in New Orleans five hours after talking to Senator Long. Reporters noted that he was shocked by the suffering and in particular by thirst of survivors in one shelter. He immediately announced that the “red tape be cut,” and he took personal control of operations, which he continued—according to the Washington Post—“day and night.”

The community story on this disaster that all the old folks tell around here is how LBJ showed up in the lower ninth ward with a flashlight at one shelter. He shined it on his face and said something to the effect that I’m your president and I’m in charge.

Notice how different this story is from the Port Potemkin staged visit we saw on Friday? What type of community memory will this disaster create"?

Posted by: JL on June 1, 2010 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

David Brooks has been showing faint signs of intelligent life recently - but today's column was bought and paid for. As lacking in cogency as BP's Hayward delivering the obfuscation of the day.

Posted by: SteinL on June 1, 2010 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

what's going to solve the problem- empathy or engineering?

Posted by: richard on June 1, 2010 at 6:10 PM | PERMALINK

Democrats never measure up. Remember they mocked Clinton for feeling your pain. Now Obama doesn't show emotion. If Obama does show any feeling now, now that they've demanded it, he'll be mocked for pandering. Bush, OTOH, now there was a John Wayne man. His illiteracy--just a sign that he had the common touch. There's nothing a Democrat can ever do to satisfy these Heathers.

Posted by: Raenelle on June 1, 2010 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

There is another aspect to this that isn't being discussed enough -Obama has always known that he cannot appear to be "an angry black man." In this instance, he really is dammned if he does (emote) and damned (by David Brooks et al) if he doesn't

Posted by: Matt on June 1, 2010 at 6:13 PM | PERMALINK

NPR's All Things Considered just did it too. Correspondent lamented Obama's "bloodless" description of the importance of the Gulf region.

Posted by: Bat of Moon on June 1, 2010 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

DougJ at Balloon Juice had a great link to a piece at the Economist that pointed out the media's utter failure. The Economist wrote: "There is plenty of room for substantive critique of the flaws in governance and policy uncovered by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. You could talk about regulatory failure. You could talk about corporate impunity. You could talk about blithely ignoring the tail-end risk of going ahead with deepwater drilling without any capacity to cope with catastrophic blowouts. Precisely none of these subjects are evident in the arguments our pundit class is having. Instead we have empty-headed squawking over what the catastrophe is doing to Barack Obama’s image.

"Who’s raising concrete critiques of administration policy? Chiefly Mr Obama."

Exactly. Where is the policy criticism? Nowhere, because policy is hard.

Posted by: meander on June 1, 2010 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

There is another aspect to this that isn't being discussed enough -Obama has always known that he cannot appear to be "an angry black man."

In a very palpable way, he is the Jackie Robinson of Presidents, isn't he?

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on June 1, 2010 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

I don't remember Bush42 being blamed for the Exxon Valdez oil spill - why not?

Posted by: J. Frank Parnell on June 1, 2010 at 6:57 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sure that either Beck or Boehner would have been much more effective as a President in this situation. Their easy and copious tears would have acted as oil dispersant and, in no time flat, there'd have been no problem left.

Posted by: exlibra on June 1, 2010 at 7:08 PM | PERMALINK

I'de settle for firing Ken Salazar and appointing an SoI who will represent the public's interest. I'm not too impressed with the EPA either.

What were these two doing in the months leading up to this disaster? Anyone with a passing interest in offshore drilling knew the MMS was completely FUBAR. Extrapolating that fact to the inherent danger of these deepwater efforts should have raised some flags.

Posted by: bdop4 on June 1, 2010 at 7:21 PM | PERMALINK

David Brooks is all ego, who actually believes all Americans think and feel as he does inside his tiny bubble of insight. A condescending twit who dare not stray too far from his bubble else he might be lost completely in reality. Absolutely no validity in today's world and no matter how many yell STFU he can't see past his own nose or hear past that voice in his head that tells him he is credible.

Look to www.driftglass.com for deserved hero worship of David "F*@king" Brooks", an insightful history of the man's blathering.

Posted by: bjobotts on June 1, 2010 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

The president's stalwart defenders seemed to have flushed the memory of Gray Davis down the old memory hole.

What was it William Money of Kansas said to Little Bill before executing him? Something like, "Fair has got nothing to do with it".

I know as much about oil spills as James Carville. I'll just say this: I believe Obama should heed Robert Reich's advice, and place BP under temporary stewardship-- and I have believed that from the beginning of this catastrophe. And I know as much about temporary stewardship as I do about plugging oil leaks.

If only in cold blooded political terms, designed to manipulate perception, it's the smart play.

After all, how can an organization suspected of criminal conspiracy be entrusted in dealing with any aspect of this disaster?

Posted by: JL on June 1, 2010 at 7:29 PM | PERMALINK

We all know that David Brooks would find Obama's emotional tone pitch-perfect if he were a Republican President, right?

Yup.

Posted by: biggerbox on June 1, 2010 at 7:51 PM | PERMALINK

Brooks does have a bit of a point. The ridiculous urge to turn our political figures into Hollywood celebrities has gotten us to this place. Our nation has been raised on TV melodramas, monster truck rallies, and arena rock concerts, leading many to expect broad theatrical gestures from all in the public eye. And as Greg Sargent noted, that standard is one that all celebrities eventually fall short of. It is not a good idea to break our Presidents on the same wheel that was used to break Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Michael Jackson.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on June 1, 2010 at 7:54 PM | PERMALINK

Brooks has always lived in the rarified atmosphere of elite punditry where the oxygen is scarce and the brain begins to hallucinate. He mistakes his conceited opinions for the mainstream and tells us in disjointed prose what we should think. Most of us don't exist at such elevations, nor are we so shortsighted as to only see the nose on our own face. His writing is horrible. He is contemptible, but he is the conservative (some) liberals love. Count me out.

Posted by: rrrk1 on June 1, 2010 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK

Benen: "The president really has talked to the press, shown leadership, declared that the buck stops with him, and taken many steps to launch an aggressive federal response to the crisis"

Well said.

Yeah, like we all haven't had it with Mr. George Bush routinely shrugging his shoulders, offering no solutions, while butchering the English language, and literally tap dancing during a crisis.

I welcome the even-keeled, intelligent Barack Obama.

I'll take sane, rational responses, without displays of anger or theatrics.

As columnist Mo Dowd once observed, Bush "reacted with cocky ignorance...when a reporter informed him that gas was barreling toward $4.00 a gallon." And he had spoken at the Economic Club of New York, with a manner of "chortling and joshing, in odd juxtaposition to the Fed's bailing out of the imploding Bears Stern and his own acknowledgment that "our economy obviously is going through a tough time, that folks are concerned about making their bills," laughing about the economic disaster of the fall of 2008 being "an interesting moment." Rather carefree of him, was the description. "Goofily happy." "Ebullient." Sounding like Rachel Ray sprinking paprika on goulash.."


Posted by: Noticing the variances on June 1, 2010 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

"I welcome the even-keeled, intelligent [Gray Davis].

I'll take sane, rational responses, without displays of anger or theatrics".


Posted by: JL on June 1, 2010 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

Mike Allen is onto the absurdity of this dynamic. Today he made the half-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that before long Obama would appear in the Gulf on a boat.

...and a Beckboard.

Posted by: cwolf on June 1, 2010 at 10:55 PM | PERMALINK

See, the normal response-- to appoint an "Oil Leak Czar"-- has been closed off.

I wish these media idiots would figure out what, exactly, they want. If you show emotion, you're unpresidential. If you don't, you're professorial.

Posted by: Woodrow L. Goode, IV on June 1, 2010 at 11:39 PM | PERMALINK

"The second part is more condescending -- we apparently want "theatrical gestures," Brooks tells us, to satisfy some psychological urge for public wish-fulfillment and verisimilitude."

Hate to agree with David Brooks, I really do, but Bush the Lesser's Rock Pile speech shows David to be absolutely correct.

Dim Son did absolutely NADA that was effective in response to 9/11.

Well, I take that back. He did START to go after OBL, but he got distracted by the shiny object of Iraq, which "tried to kill his Daddy," and royally screwed this country with ramifications (pun intended) that will remain for a long, long time.

But his speech on the Rock Pile fooled most of the people most of the time, and got him re-elected, and makes people think, TO THIS DAY, that Repukelicans are better at "keeping us safe" than Democrats.

The sheeple need their circuses, and pols have realized that for millennia. Obama has to realize that, and throw that red meat down there into the pit.

Posted by: Sarah Barracuda on June 1, 2010 at 11:47 PM | PERMALINK

Aircraft carrier. Flight suit. Gulf of Mexico. President Obama.

Posted by: The Oracle on June 2, 2010 at 3:49 AM | PERMALINK

Is David Brooks the single most vapid airhead pundit alive?

Discuss.

Posted by: Nothing But the Ruth on June 2, 2010 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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