Dear Belladonna Rogers,
I didn’t vote for Obama and wasn’t happy when he won. Still, I’m a loyal American and want to see the country to do well even if it means he’s re-elected. But the country isn’t doing well and I find that almost everywhere I go, even among people who agree with his politics, I sense a wave of anger rising up at the president. I’m normally a pretty even-tempered guy and I don’t get emotional about politics or whoever is president, but even I’m feeling irritation when I see him on TV. What is it about this president that’s so exasperating? And how can I deal with my rising level of annoyance with him?
Irritated in Cleveland
“Folks,” as the president likes to refer to Americans outside the Beltway, are getting fed up with him. You ask what it is about President Obama that causes even a normally even-tempered man like you to become incensed. Short answer: his withering condescension.
By way of introduction, a few words on the importance of presidential character in general. If you’re a politician, you don’t want voters’ assessments of your policies to be based on their negative reactions to your personality. The counter-example to Obama is Reagan: people thought he was a sunny, decent, fair, good-natured guy. That was a political advantage, especially with independents and centrists: they were predisposed to give his views a fair hearing (even though they didn’t always agree with his positions) just because they liked him.
One of the great lines in the classic 1978 movie Animal House is uttered by Dean Vernon Wormer, when he says to fraternity pledge Kent “Flounder” Dorfman, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
Similarly, I’d say that condescending, disdainful, and contemptuous is no way to go through a presidency. Nothing is better guaranteed to alienate your fellow citizens than being addressed as if you’re the only serious adult while they’re not merely in kindergarten, but are among the dimmer five-year-olds in the class.
With Obama, we hear the derision in his mocking tone. We also intuit his nonverbal signals of contempt.
Poker players are well-acquainted with “the tell” — the tiniest of changes in behavior, from a slightly deeper inhalation of breath to a nano-second-lasting twitch that reveals a clue about the cards another player has or signals an upcoming bet in the game. Every player has a different tell, and some tells are genuine while others are purposeful and intended to deceive — an under-the-breath curse word uttered to suggest a bad hand when a the player actually has a terrific hand.
Similar to poker tells are what the psychologist Paul Ekman calls “microexpressions,” which, as the term suggests, are fleeting facial expressions that last from less than a second to a few seconds at most, and reveal the real emotions a person may be trying to conceal, or may unconsciously feel. A teenager’s eyeroll when being chastised would be a microexpression, conveying to the parent or teacher that the experience is way annoying while attempting to seem respectful and cooperative (the sooner to get it over with). If the parent or teacher looks away for a nanosecond, he or she will miss the microexpression — it is that fleeting. Another Ekman-coined term is “leaking,” meaning the unintended expression of an emotion that has inadvertently “leaked” out.
With Obama, the tell or microexpression is invariably a kind of smile, which has “leaked” out. It isn’t a friendly smile; it’s a sneer, a smirk and it’s visible in the videos in this column. When you see him break into a smile as he’s about to answer a question, that’s invariably the tell that he’s about to lob a contemptuous and condescending taunt at the questioner.
Only last week, on July 25, Obama could be seen on TV lecturing us as follows: “Now, what makes today’s stalemate so dangerous is that it has been tied to something known as the debt ceiling — a term that most people outside of Washington have probably never heard of before.” As William Kristol, editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard, commented,
Consider the condescension implicit in the president’s statement — “a term that most people outside of Washington have probably never heard of before.” These “people outside of Washington” are not little children being lectured on an obscure subject by a worldly adult. These people outside Washington are … citizens. Judging by the polls, most of us have opinions about whether, and under what conditions, the debt ceiling should be raised. We don’t seem to be as ignorant as Obama thinks we are of the term or concept of a debt ceiling. But the president assumes we’ve never bothered our pretty little heads about such a thing…It would be nice to have a president who spoke candidly to his fellow citizens as adults.
Similarly, Commentary’s John Steele Gordon wrote, of the same speech, “Was last night’s speech by President Obama…the moment when American popular opinion froze into an enduring, and negative image of this president? It was classic Obama: elitist, condescending, impolitic, self-obsessed, and dishonest.”
Thanks to the wonders of online video, one can see Obama’s mockery of the kinds of people he doesn’t respect, and hear the derision dripping in his voice when, for example, he referred during the campaign to plumbers. (I wonder how he felt about plumbers five years ago in Chicago when his toilet was blocked and the Drano and the snake he bought didn’t do the trick):
Condescension is an attitude whose implicit message is: “I am superior to you.” It’s gratuitously insulting, it’s anti-democratic and it’s wrong. As few people in public life have demonstrated more vividly than Obama, just because you’re highly-credentialed doesn’t mean you’re either smart or well-educated. And even if someone is bright, that isn’t the only important quality in a president.
The most important qualification for a president isn’t a Harvard degree but rather (a) competence at dealing with other people and working well with others; (b) emotional intelligence, a concept pioneered by psychology writer Daniel Goleman, meaning the ability to read other people’s emotions and being able to behave in a way that takes those feelings into consideration;(c) good judgment; and (d) character.
Character has been described as “how you behave when no one is looking,” and involves basic human decency, empathy, dependability, and the courage to understand what “the right thing” is, and then to do it. Presidents who had it include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry S Truman, and George H.W. Bush.
The character essential to be an effective president is hardly expressed by dismissing and denying the intelligence of “the public” — you know, Obama’s idea of losers who’re trying to get through life without an Ivy League degree. Another way he expresses his condescension is by holding himself up as the only unflappable, self-controlled adult in the room, who’s been tasked with the tiresome duty of dealing with the volatile, immature folks “out there.” In August, 2009, John Knefel found himself irritated by Obama’s condescension in describing his liberal critics as “a little excited,” as if passion and fervor were negative qualities in an advocate:
During an interview with a Philadelphia-based radio show, Obama, once again, mocked and infantilized his critics on the left. Responding to a question by the show’s host, Michael Smerconish, about recent comments made by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about jettisoning the “public option” from the final health care bill, Obama responded, “The press got excited and some folks on the left got a little excited…” What a fantastically dismissive thing to say about health care reform advocates who feel discouraged and betrayed by the administration’s willingness to consider a bill that doesn’t include a public option. They are “excitable” — you know, like children are. Their anger, and the backlash that Obama is facing from liberals, stems from a purely reactionary mindset, apparently. Yes, why on Earth would the announcement that the health care bill might no longer contain any teeth at all cause the left to cry foul? If they were more serious and thoughtful, they wouldn’t be so excitable.
Obama seems to me to have trouble with his own aggression, and his disdainful notion of humor may be one way of expressing it without appearing (to himself, anyway) to be angry. He thinks that appearing cool is his strong suit. When he’s pissed off, he turns to contempt or sarcasm rather than overt anger. He assumes that his true feelings of hostility are concealed by his verbal jabs, when in reality, they’re revealed for all to see.
This is a constant undercurrent in Obama’s response to criticism: to denigrate his detractors by dismissive adjectives and verbs that suggest he’s the only rational one in the room.